Thursday, November 19, 2009

You have to hand it to the French...

I’ve been listening – as usual – to my football podcast this morning as I walked across Brooklyn Bridge to work. The business of the day was an in-depth debate about the blatant handball (or was it a ‘juggle’) that effectively led to the Republic of Ireland being knocked out of the World Cup and guaranteed France their place. What I didn’t expect was to see the issue discussed on Huffington Post once I arrived at the office:
A large part of what I have heard and read centers on whether or not Thierry Henry – a gifted player with a similar talent for keeping his PR stock high – should have done the sportsmanlike thing: should he have owned up? After all, he must have known that the whole sports world would soon be analyzing that particular bit of video. Moreover, he must have suspected that most people who saw it the first time round didn’t need to analyze the video. It was so obvious. Except to the referee.
The problem with this is that it assumes that football is a sport and played for the enjoyment of taking part; when, in fact, it crossed over from sport to business somewhere between twenty and thirty years ago. Henry has since admitted that he handled the ball – he could hardly deny it - but that France are already through and winning is the most important thing. If you can win in an entertaining fashion that is certainly a bonus – after all, football is in the entertainment business. (Or is it in the Sports Merchandising business?). Players are under more televised scrutiny than ever but are still diving, spitting, stamping and tugging shirts. Few players are given time to develop – particularly at the bigger clubs – and need to make an immediate impact – fairly or otherwise. If they don’t they are out. To be replaced by another big signing. And if you don’t have the money to buy these players then you make it known that you may be interested in hearing from any wealthy Arab businessmen and/or royalty who may want a new plaything. The common wisdom used to claim that you couldn’t buy the Premiership. Blackburn tested the theory (with Jack Walker’s cash) and Chelsea have smashed it into tiny pieces (having looked farther afield to Russia). Manchester City are now the richest club in the world, owned as they are by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan whose family fortune is estimated at around $1 trillion. Having already invested around $500 million you would suspect that he will want a return on that investment. The minimum required will be a Champions League place and that requires them to finish in the top four. They will not achieve that by just playing fair and entertaining football.
It would be nice to think that on the International level there may exist some of the finer points of the game where Nation meets Nation to pit their wits against each other and transcend the commercial imperatives. But the players of any top footballing nation are mostly those who are battling it out in a kind of Super League of six to eight teams in the EPL, La Liga, Serie A or the Bundesliege. The National Manager is not necessarily of that country’s descent. Even stranger is the fact that very often the players themselves only have a tenuous link with the team whose shirt they are wearing. I think you could possibly qualify for selection if a distant relation took a vacation in a particular country for longer than two weeks. I suspect that top players are paid so much by their clubs and are asked to play so many games that the thought of playing for their country loses some of its appeal. You only have to look at how many players announce their international retirement these days – almost unheard of ten years ago.
And, of course, there is always the commercial consideration even with international games. The winning country will sell more shirts and other merchandise and will see an increase in attendances, etc.

We may want to see the spirit of fair play and a well-contested game – particularly as an antidote to all of the other things that are going on in the world. I suspect that more often we want to come out on the winning side and there’s nothing wrong with that. But without some sense of fair play what does that leave us with?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

No news.... is good news?

I love music as much as the next man. Maybe more. I love playing it, I love listening to it. I love the moment when I discover something that ‘blows my mind’. This seems to be happening less with ‘new’ music (by which I mean contemporary popular music).But I do discover great old stuff now and then. I sometimes think that I would be perfectly content to listen for the rest of my life only to the music that has already been recorded (which is quite something when you bear in mind that I am really talking about the last sixty or seventy years’ worth or recorded music).

After all, if I could track down recordings of all the music that I think I would like to listen to (notwithstanding that music that I think I wouldn’t like but may actually find that I love) I could probably listen to each piece of music only time only and still run out of my remaining lifetime before I ran out of music. And bear in mind that I was a huge fan of Punk and New Wave which, for me, blew away all of the safe and bland music out of the water. But if I am being truthful, I am probably listening to more of that safe and bland stuff than I am any experimental or ‘new’ music. (Rumours, anyone?)

I’m not really sure why this is…a certain nostalgic familiarity maybe? Maybe it reminds me of a high school girlfriend, a great club I went to in our 20s, a great road trip. As we get older we cling onto things from our youth. Or maybe this love of the music from our past is due to the fact that there aren’t that many new things to say and, for the most part, not that many new ways of saying them. Or to put it another way, I have not only heard it before…but I’ve heard it better before.

Take a contemporary artist that I really DO like: Jack White. Jack White is an enormous talent and I love watching this guy play – especially live. But even in this instance I don’t know how much of his music I will ever get through. A lot of his music is influenced by Led Zeppelin and, as familiar as I am with Led Zeppelin and as much as I like their work, I have not cracked their entire back catalogue. So am I really going to start working through Jack White’s as well as Led Zeppelin’s? And if I did get around to all of that shouldn’t really get started on Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, etc. It is an addictive pastime, trying to listen to all this music.

But maybe I have it all wrong. Maybe the whole point is that every generation has its own way of telling stories and while there only be a few recurring stories in the world they are all valid to be retold as long as each connects to their audience.

I was recently sent a link to Robert Crumb’s Book of Genesis:
A classic example of re-telling one of the oldest stories in existence. Okay, maybe the medium is not the most cutting edge – but given that R. Crumb is responsible, this is a pretty new re-working of an ancient story. I was pleased to see this project. It gave me hope about the endless possibilities of art and it confirmed what is a core belief of mine: that people will always want to hear or see stories. Sometimes people will delve back in time and sometimes they will want it presented in a slightly modernized way.

That's a nice thought.

We are an industry of storytellers of one kind or another and we all know that there are new stories to be told. We also know that sometimes older stories need re-working in order to engage a young audience who is waiting, eager to consume them. We need to be able to connect. Does the message resonate better when it’s delivered by Robert Johnson on a dusty old ‘30s recording than by a synthed-up Lady GaGa? Or when it comes courtesy of Ray Harryhausen’s King Kong as opposed to Peter Jackson’s? Of course not. Different people will have a different response to receiving the same message. Moreover, one person may respond differently depending on what stage of his life he/she is at and what experiences they can draw on. The crucial thing is that we deliver the message in a way which will achieve the results we require.

As storytellers we should be able to do this using our skills with the tools at our disposal. If we’re not then maybe we are no longer relevant. A great example of adapting modern methods of communication to get across historical ideas was recently emailed to me:

Yes, Orchestra Hero…! We’ve had Guitar Hero and DJ Hero is just about to be released…so why not Orchestra Hero? Yes, it is a little incongruous, but at the very least it will serve as a way to expose a group of young people to classic music in a medium that will not make them immediately reject it. This could lead to a greater appreciation of orchestral works. The article suggests that during the time of their original composition, the works of Beethoven, Mahler and Bach, the orchestra was the place where influential statements were made:

statements that impacted the cultural and political dialogues of the West. Unfortunately this is a claim the orchestral world can no longer make. Competing now with movies, television, the Internet and popular music, the orchestra no longer has the platform for cultural dialogue that it once held.

Interesting that a computer game may provide a road for the player to embark on a journey of discovery.

Maybe that is also the point of ‘new music’; while there’s nothing necessarily new about most of it, it can speak to those who are receptive to it but also can provide a bridge to other influences and help to open up a whole new world of discovery.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Guest Blogger Framestore Digital/Design EP Simon Whalley was always game. Now he's Gamer!

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

Now, I can be fairly sure that Dylan wasn't singing about the convergence of the Games and the Film & TV industry (unless he was even more of a visionary than he let on....), but this was the song that was bubbling through my conscious thought as I attended a lecture at BAFTA last Wednesday, gven by Peter Molyneux, Creative Director of Microsoft Games Europe.
Peter's lecture was very much focused on the exciting times we are now in, and the innovation that is happening in the Games industry. He challenged people to throw away their old foundations and pre-conceptions for gaming and embrace a wider audience.
In 1989, Peter created a game called 'Populous'. This was a hugely successful game, and sold 4 million copies. In 2008, Peter was part of the team that created 'Fable II'. This was a hugely successful game, and sold 4 million copies. Now this was interesting - given the huge advancement of technology and connectivity, the gaming market appears to have remained the same! So, here we have a huge opportunity. Think of all those other people who could be connected, playing games. We just need to tap into the thing that makes them want to play. And that includes things like a physical controller, if you're Microsoft. Using Natal, what Microsoft dub a "controller-free gaming and entertainment experience" they appear to be actively taking those important steps into attracting a wider audience. And Sony have been exploring this to an extent with Eye Toy and the recently released Eye Pet.
The key to all of this is emotion. An emotional connection is the thing that will draw people in. And we in the linear narrative business of Film and Television have been doing this for many decades, but the gaming industry by comparison is still a child. That's not to say that games don't have emotion, but it's a different way of crafting and generating emotion with storytelling that I'm talking about here. And conversely we need to understand the needs of a gamer so we can construct an exciting, interesting but relevant story and emotive reaction to the medium.
Peter took a show of hands in the auditorium to ask how many people were from the Games industry and how many were from Film & TV. Over a third were from Film & TV, with the rest being Games people. Now I'm aware than an event at BAFTA would probably attract more Film & TV people by it's very nature, but this was still a remarkable statistic. This really does show how our industries are mutually interested in collaborating and crossing over. So how can we get involved? Well, initially one of the ways to get involved is to be part of making the linear storytelling devices, such as the cinematic intros of the cut scenes of the game. This is certainly not anything new, and Film / TV people have been doing this for Games companies for a while, but the difference here is that the games themselves have changed. We recently completed work on the Cinematic Intro Film for DJ Hero (the dance music version of Guitar Hero - comes out worldwide on Tuesday 28th October). This is a social, interactive game where the music is key, essentially that IS the story. Our film would be the first thing people would see when they put the game into their console. So when tasked with generating the intro movie, our brief was to tap into an emotion. Freestyle Games wanted us to create something that was exciting, dynamic, and got the player so darn frothed up from the get go, that they would explode with pure adrenalin at the thought of playing the game! So, we used all of our years and experience to tell a story and make it look fantastic - to make a film and elicit an emotive response. I genuinely believe that by collaborating with us in this manner, Activision and Freestyle got a different product form if they had done it themselves. In fact, they said so themselves. And ultimately, the combination of our storytelling, animation and VFX talent combined with their amazing game development skills and ideas, has created a unique product.
This is just the beginning. And as the demarcation lines become ever more blurred, and the collaboration of like minded companies cross-industries becomes more common place, then innovation will be ever more abundant. And that makes me want to explode with pure adrenalin at the thought! The times they are a-changin' indeed.....

Simon Whalley (EP Framestore Digital/Design)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Looking forward to the Past

I have just been exploring the Manahatta Project
I find it very interesting to see how technology can help us picture things as they were hundreds of years ago. I’m sure that I had some exposure to this natural history during my school days and I probably read about the many types of natural life that existed several hundred years previously. Maybe there was even some nicely rendered black and white illustration of a particular detail of that time.

But there was nothing like this.

The Manahatta Project reminded me that although I have been in the VFX industry just short of my silver jubilee and I have done my fair share of producing dancing toothbrushes and singing vegetables, there is an aspect of what we do that has even greater value.
For instance, when we took on Walking With Dinosaurs at the end of the 90’s I assumed that the Production team at the BBC would find which dinosaurs they wanted in the series and source the relevant reference pictures. What I wasn’t expecting was that our team of CGi artists, headed by the remarkable Mike Milne, became part of a process that involved a team of paleontologists ‘downloading’ their knowledge so that we could build – and bring to life - a CGi model of a particular species. The technology allowed the scientists to see the results of their findings in a way that would have been impossible only a few years earlier. In some cases, the CGi representation altered their idea of how that particular dinosaur moved or changed the common perception of how long their limbs were.

The thought occurred to me again recently as my partner, Sarah Dowland, finished producing the new Planetarium show 'Journey To The Stars' at the American Museum of Natural History:
Throughout the course of a year Sarah had been working with a team of extremely bright scientists at the Museum but also with a team of CGi/VFX artists (one of whom, Jon Parker, had worked frequently as a freelancer in our team here). If you go and see the show, which I hope you do, I am sure that you will marvel at the visually rich spectacle. But what may not be apparent to you is that several moments of the film have never been visualized this way before. As Sarah has explained it, to produce the complicated representations they had waded through pages and pages of data and ‘somewhere within that data there was a picture’. They took those pictures and used them as the basis of one of the most amazing explorations of the natural world that has ever been created. When I spoke with one of the curators recently he was overjoyed that their research could be shown in this way. He was also full of admiration for Jon and his colleagues who could take those numbers on a page and create something that not only looks incredible but also aids our understanding of the universe. And this is praise indeed from the first guy to discover a brown dwarf!

Just another example of how the fine balance of technology, creativity and talent can provide a clearer understanding of a world that existed thousands of years ago on the island of Manhattan, or solar systems that we cannot actually see…or how a toothbrush would dance if it had legs.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Show Me The Honey

In my daily newspaper perusing I have noticed some recent articles that feature people being pretty old school about their secondary sources of income. First, there was this story about London encouraging its citizens to become urban beekeepers:

And while the push from the government probably has a lot to do with helping repopulate a declining honeybee population, all that honey to sell (especially in honey-loving England!) would certainly be a sweet source of additional income in this economy.

But beekeeping is not the only traditional skill that is being re-explored. Yesterday's USA Today had this story about panning for gold:

Panning for gold?! Could there be a cooler way to make some extra cash? I could grow a dirty beard, pull on some old Levi’s and learn to spit chewing tobacco like in the olden days. (After all, some people think that’s the look I’m going for anyway…!)
So what’s next? Horseshoeing? Bloodletting? Witch burning? Count me in.

But I think there is a more serious message in this trend: traditional skills and business plans should not be ignored as we search out new models and innovation. The fact is that traditional media is not redundant and the skills that produce traditional media are still relevant. At Framestore we may have new digital madmen who know how to program crazy alternate realities and who have the skills to take our animations and have them step right off the page, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still need the artist who creates that animation. We can’t toss the old models out entirely because the new models are still being formed. Our aim is to bring those skills that result in us producing Oscar winning images to any platform of distribution.

Change takes time to reach all levels of our industry and just because one aspect is innovating or expanding doesn’t mean the old standards are not still profitable and desired. A comScore dunnhumbyUSA survey was just released that says online adveritsing can be as effective as television advertising in helping increase retails sales of consumer package goods brands. They track online advertising as lifting retail sales at an average of 9% and television lifts CPGs 8%.

That survey is remarkable for two reasons. Yes, this is proof that on-line advertising can work. Surprisingly, that has still been up for debate in certain circles. But also, television is still very effective at lifting sales. To put all of our energy into one area at the expense of the traditional, still effective, area does not make sense. We should be innovating but we should not be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.
I can’t imagine a more interesting time to be working in an industry like this that is straddling traditional media and new media, traditional tools and new models. We are among the lucky few who can make honey and, who knows…maybe even strike gold.

Friday, August 7, 2009

51.9 Part 2

I’m going to see a doctor this afternoon. I very rarely go to see the doctor. In fact, when I moved to New York and they asked me who my doctor was in London I couldn’t give them a name. But I am going to the doctor today.

It all started with an invitation to join my good friend, Charles Day, and his wonderful wife, Chris, for a weekend at their gorgeous place in upstate NY.

(He has beaten me to this - not for the first time as you’ll discover – and you can find his description of the weekend on his blog, . If you aren’t reading his blog, you should be.)

Prior to this weekend, Charles had casually mentioned in a previous conversation that he had discovered a go-kart in one of their (many) garages on their upstate property and that we could maybe give it a spin around the old bridle path in their lower field. I say ‘casually’ because I suspect that Charles was attempting to mask the glee of a fourteen-year-old boy when he told me about the go-kart. As I received the news, I was likewise instantly making a spiritual journey back to the mid-‘70s.

So I was a little confused last weekend when we pulled into the driveway of their upstate house and I spotted, half a mile in the distance (yes, they have a long could double as a runway for a local airport), The Kart.

I had been expecting to find an orange crate nailed to a couple of 2x4’s, some rope, a couple of old wheels off a small bike…something you might see the Little Rascals riding down a hill. Instead, what I saw in the distance was a two-seater crate with rollbars and some hefty tires. This was going to be brilliant.

But, not unlike being forced to eat breakfast on Christmas morning before the presents are opened, the four of us dutifully went off to lunch. We ate quickly and upon our return there was no stopping us and we were down at the track with only one thing on our minds: time trials. Not for us the gentle drive around a freshly mown strip of field admiring the wondrous views and thankful for the cooling effect of driving on a hot day.

No…we would just floor it.

Lap followed lap, each succeeded in shaving seconds off the leading time. Chris and Sarah came down to share the fun. They each navigated their way around the course and immediately wanted to do another lap. But that was enough. To them it was great fun but not as much fun as good conversation and some glasses of wine on the patio.

But for Charles and I each lap was an opportunity to improve on the previous and each lap ended with the belief that we couldn’t possibly go any faster. With adrenalin pumping from the knowledge that there was no room for error, we each attempted the perfect, faster lap. All was well until my next turn when I switched the ignition on and nothing happened. Tried again. Nothing. Charles and I rubbed our chins and said such helpful things as “That’s odd…”, etc. I suggested to Charles that we shouldn’t overlook the obvious and that he should check the fuel tank. It was full. Our problem was even more obvious than having no gas: no battery.

I may have neglected to tell you that the track was in no way flat and that going at such a speed over some of those bumps was perilous. On several occasions I found myself thankful that I had heeded Chris’ ‘advice’ to wear the helmet. And on Charles’ last lap the battery had finally freed itself from it’s strap and connectors and had flown the coop.

A walk around the track produced the missing battery, which was now leaking sulfuric acid through a large crack in the case. Charles had escaped from serious burns earlier in the week when he had attempted to fill the battery with the acid but succeeded mostly in scorching everything in sight bar him and the dogs. This time he wasn’t taking any chances. He lashed up an ingenious contraption using the strap as a support for the battery and holding onto the connectors to try to stop the degree of swing as we started the long walk back. Sarah pointed out that Charles should at the very least be wearing gloves and, sheepishly, Charles and I retrieved the proper tools.

Now we were faced with the prospect of pushing a heavy go-kart up a very steep hill and back to the garage. After a little more chin rubbing Charles disappeared and returned with a car battery charger. Undaunted by the fact that there was no battery we managed to hook up the charger to the positive and negative cables and start the kart which we then drove back to the garage.

Why am I telling you this story? It occurred to me that I spend a great deal of my professional time creating virtual realities. I’m doing even more of that work now that Framestore is getting into games related work in the form of developing online games and doing FMVs, trailers and spots for major games companies. And some of my personal time – and much of my kids’ time - is spent enjoying the virtual worlds that others have created. My kids were over in NYC a few weeks ago and they loved spending time playing X-Box 360. I have great kids (of course...!) that enjoy doing many other things that don’t involve staring at a screen for hours, but I started thinking about the difference between their childhoods and my own early years. Not only were there no computer games when I was a boy – there weren’t any computers. Or certainly none that you would find in any home. And, leaving aside the much expressed concern that kids these days are spending far too much time in front of a screen and not enough time exercising, I was thinking about the differences in the quality of experience. Charles could have called me up and said that he had the latest racing game for PS3 and I’m sure that I would have been excited to try it out. But could I honestly say that I would have had a tenth of the elation that I felt bouncing around inside that kart? And though we would face several challenges within the computer game, would any have felt as rewarding as preparing the car, negotiating a tight corner, shifting bodyweight to counter the weight distribution on bends, the smell of it….the sweat?

In short, the kart experience reminded me of the difference between playing a game and feeling alive.

Of course, I know that some part of the physicality of the afternoon is linked to nostalgia and it is easy to be seduced by the feeling of being young with no other cares or responsibilities than beating your mate’s best lap time. But I wonder, as advanced as we get with Project Natal, etc, can we ever replicate those feelings of risk and danger and joy and achievement on a computer? The images that are now being produce are amazing and the ability to replace the controller is upon us. We are able to physically move in front of – or surrounded by – realistic images. But it is an important difference that ultimately we know that this game is happening in a safe environment without risk. Can this really be the same fun? Can it provide the same feeling of being alive?

Which leads me back to the reason for the doctor.

Charles and I had successfully taken the acid dripping battery up to a safe place and had driven a battery-free kart up the hill and back to the garage. We had 50 minutes before we were headed to the restaurant for dinner and the motor was still running.

Charles turned to me. “Fancy one last lap?”

Let me see…we had spent the last half an hour or more sorting out this mess, almost burnt off our skin with sulfuric acid and now we were going to take the kart BACK to the track and keep racing. Added to that, I had the fastest lap time.


Charles was first, driving demonically enough to shave about a second and a half off his personal best and a half a second off my best time.

I had to improve. Sarah later said that she had looked at my face as I set off and knew that something was about to happen. Maybe I had some additional courage from the glasses of wine enjoyed during our break for repair. I set off at breakneck speed. I hugged the corners and set off into the first straight with so much speed that the smile plastered over my face would have made the Joker look glum.

I was traveling at 45 degrees when the kart began to roll. It rolled. And rolled. And I would have rolled with it if I had been wearing the safety belt. But I wasn’t (I thought It might inhibit a bit of weight distribution body shifting). And so the kart eventually spat me out and then landed on top of me. Or I ended up on it. I can’t actually recall. I do remember getting up, tipping the kart back to it’s rightful position and trying to assess whether I had done any great damage to those parts that were in pain. At the same time I saw three figures in the distance running towards the track. There are plenty of lessons to be learned from all of this. Listening to Chris and Sarah is high on the list. Quitting while you’re ahead? (No, not really!) The most important lesson for me is that risk is a necessary part of feeling alive and that we all periodically need that sense of exhilaration that comes from putting yourself out there. We need to take risks. Real risks – with real consequences. I wonder if computer games will ever be able to simulate that?

Monday, August 3, 2009

Why I Love New York City - Simon Whalley

Recently returned from a trip to the Big Apple, Simon Whalley (EP of Design/Digital at Framestore), reflects in his second blog on how much he 'gets' NYC and how much NYC 'gets' him:

There are 2 cities that have exceeded hype and expectations for me - Barcelona and New York.
I was in New York last week with my partner Mike Woods (that's business partner, incidentally, not the other kind of partner. Not that there's anything wrong with that....). We were there for a whirlwind tour, visiting Framestore NY and some of their esteemed clients, showing them our exciting developments in digital work.

This is not my first visit to this fine city, but it's a testament to the city's vibe that it always gives me the same excitement upon arrival, like that feeling you get when tearing the cellophane off your imported DVD boxset of SNL (or is that just me?). Anyway, it's just a magnificent place. The architecture is breathtaking, the people are fantastic and the food is just, well, awesome! We were staying in a hotel in the Lower East Side, just a few brisk steps away from Katz's Deli (it's worth pointing out that our steps taken after eating at Katz's were a lot less brisk than the ones on the way in).

Meeting the New York clients was an extremely rewarding experience. They loved everything we showed them, from inventive flash games and innovative web applications to groundbreaking non-linear approaches to storytelling and innovative iPhone apps. They completely got it. It was great to discover how some of the agencies have truly embraced integration cross platform, being in control of TV, Print and Digital, thus keeping the creative coherent, strong and ultimately more interesting. A fine example of this is 'The Great Schlep' ( by Droga5. A cracking idea, brilliantly executed. Crossed the boundary from the virtual to the real with great aplomb.

We in Digital see this interaction between the digital world and the real world to be the key to a sustained, exciting and ultimately successful campaign. From a consumer's point of view, being able to immerse yourself cross platform into essentially an Alternate Reality Game (ie an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform as well as the web and mobile) is a much more rewarding experience. With that in mind, we're working with a client now to achieve exactly that. Watch this space.

So, thank you New York for having us. We miss you, and we'll come back soon - we promise!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Anyone fancy a pint...?

Finally…! The news we have been waiting to hear. No, not Michael Jackson’s pill regime, not predictions of what Sarah Palin will do next. No, the word is that beer is good for you! At last.

And who says so? Why, the ad on North Korean TV.

Okay, maybe it’s a little early to rejoice. After all it is a beer commercial which extols the virtues of the frothy brew by citing that it relieves stress and extends life. However, it is a beer commercial in North Korea – a Communist country ‘wary of capitalistic influences’. The usual bill of fare for the North Korean TV viewer consists of ‘news, factory descriptions, some children's animation shows, and documentaries on leader Kim Jong Il and his father Kim Il Sung, interspersed with propaganda slogans and music’. (This may sound like eating a constant diet of steamed vegetables to a modern day Western TV consumer – but it actually doesn’t sound too far off from the BBC2 channel in the UK about forty years ago). And now here is the most Western kind of television that is possible – beer commercials.

The rise in post war Capitalism in the West, the relative affluence of the consumer, the many lines of credit and the advertising that accompanied all of this has been well documented. Twenty years ago this Capitalism was held up as the prevailing ideology that was triumphing over the crumbling Communism of the USSR. Today we are forced to admit that many people in the West are suffering because the lifestyles sold to us were more than we could actually afford. People were seduced into spending more than they earned in order to attain those things that they couldn’t live without – bigger houses, newer cars, faster computers, etc. And I must admit that this collapse of the capitalist dream concerns me. Shamefully, I am less concerned on an ideological level, but more from the perspective that I do the majority of my business working on VFX and animation for Commercials. The soothsayers have been predicting the death of the 30 second at least since TiVo started shifting some units. Were they right after all?

Is the game up?

Once again beer may be the answer. It may be that Kim Jong Il likes a pint of Boddingtons now and then and this love of beer influenced the appearance of this commercial on North Korean TV. But, frankly, the fact that a beer commercial is punctuating documentaries "Great Leadership That Prepared Eternal Asset for Education of Revolutionary Tradition" and "Natural Treasure Yonjibong Pine Tree" is incredible. The rise of consumerism in Asia is extraordinary when we think of the historical ideologies that we associate with many of these countries. But to have access to these formerly isolated markets, with the potential to sell to billions of people - despite the fact that the majority can in no way afford the products and services - has given rise to the prospect of new opportunities for many in the Advertising world. After all, why should the fact that billions of people can’t afford something stop them from buying it?

Thursday, July 2, 2009 Twitter, Tiger?

Fast Company posted an interesting item a few days ago.

The story is about Tiger Woods and other professional athletes and how they are using new media - or not using new media - to market themselves. In Tiger’s case he has a large Facebook presence but is not on Twitter.

This is an interesting story on sports marketing in general, an area of marketing that has always been very successful, no matter what state the economy is in. The article points out how many major athletes, such as Tiger Woods and Shaun White, list Michael Jordan as the athlete they have emulated down the path of self-promotion and building a personal brand. I am a big sports fan and have fallen victim to the marketing of many football players in my day. Anyone who remembers the Everton legend Alan Ball will also remember his not so legendary white football boots. As an eight year old boy I couldn’t resist their allure….although I’m sure that any eight year old centre-half I played against kicked me twice as hard for looking like such a prat. And we have all fallen for athletes who are not the best in their specific sport but are excellent at promoting themselves and, in the case of Anna Kournikova and David Beckham, their good looks. Brilliant athletes but elevated to a position well above others equally blessed with physical prowess but without the aesthetics.

This idea of falling in the crack between social media versus traditional media is one I think about a lot. Part of my job as the head of Framestore NY is to make sure that our skills find their way into every form of media as they emerge. And as part of that desire to keep not just abreast, but ahead of all new media and technology, we in the VFX and animation industry are becoming as adept at creating VFX for mobile and gaming applications as we are at creating them for television and film. It’s our job to incorporate and embrace new technology and become innovators in its use. I’m excited by this process and I am surprised to read that Tiger Woods and his marketing team are not leading the way in closing the gaps between television and Twitter.

I'm pretty sure that if the greatest self-promoter of all time, Muhammad Ali, was competing today he would be the greatest Tweeter alive. An arch self-publicist but also a brilliant communicator. And Tiger and Shaun can say that Michael Jordan was the leader in marketing the athlete as a brand, but I think it was Muhammad Ali with a little help from Howard Cossel.

Need proof?

Clearly, times have changed but I think if Ali was at his peak of fame now he would have been manipulating a far more avaricious corporate world which yields so many more opportunities than existed in his era. Obviously, Ali is not competing any more but interestingly, we’ve just been working with EA Sports to develop a commercial for their new game – Fight Night: Ali vs Tyson.

It’s great that our VFX and animation skills are successfully crossing over into the gaming world. I know that the team here was excited to work on this project; we’re all gamers at heart. And, after all, who wouldn’t want to help some 8-year-old somewhere spend some time pretending they are Ali?

Friday, June 19, 2009

For Those Who Suffer...They Ride

Next week is the Cannes Advertising Festival. To many people Cannes is synonymous with Hedonism, self-promotion and general, overall selfishness. Mostly, these are the people who won't be going.

I will be going.

Nevertheless I agree with the accusations. The words charity and sacrifice do not usually pop up when discussing the festival (unless you consider charity to be buying endless rounds of tequila and sacrifice to be the act of accepting endless rounds of tequila). But on June 24th Cannes will witness the embodiment of great charity and sacrifice. On that day the riders of the annual The Fireflies Ride will finish up an eight day cycling tour and roll into Cannes. The considerable money that the riders raise will be donated to Leuka, a charity that benefits the treatment of leukemia.

I am very proud to report that two members of the Framestore family are burning their thigh muscles through the French Alps as I write this very comfortably at my desk with a hot cup of coffee in my hand. David Hulin and Kevin Rooney are both participating in the ride and the CG department of Framestore seems a little depressed without them. Alex Thomas, a talented Flame artist at Framestore, was set to do the ride for an impressive 3rd time until he had a cycling accident that led to emergency surgery. Talk about sacrifice. But it's not about Framestore. Several of The Mill guys are on the ride and many other agencies and production companies are represented as well.

The Fireflies Ride was started in 2000 by Ridley Scott's production company, RSA Films. With their motto "For Those Who Suffer We Ride" serving as a constant reminder of why they agreed to the physical torture in the first place, the riders will once again travel 1000 km across the French Alps from Geneva to Cannes. And it's not just the ride that is proof of their commitment. This is the culmination of months' of training by all. They have sacrificed hundreds of hours of their time to get those hard miles under their belt. As I write they are digging deep and hoping that their hours of lonely rides into the hills of Hertfordshire or the sweat they left on Bear Mountain, NY or across the Palisades in LA prepared them for the gruelling slog over Mont Blanc. And all that training was time spent apart from those they loved - in this industry there aren't too many of those hours in the first place.

I have stood on the finishing line for several years waiting for the pack to descend and it is quite an emotional moment. These people are champions and rightly are regarded as Cannes royalty but anyone who has ever ridden a bike will know that the prospect of adulation alone will not get you over the Alps in eight days. These people are riding for a cause and that is a huge motivation as they climb and descend mountains for over 1000km. I could not be more proud to be part of a community that can find a way to come together like this when things need to be done for the greater good.

According to the Fireflies website they have raised 700,000 pounds in the last nine years. That money has contributed to Leukemia scientists and laboratory workers and has allowed for the purchase of some very necessary, and very pricy, medical equipment.

I may not be ready for the sacrifice that is necessary to complete the trek through the mountains, but I am ready to sacrifice a little of the money that I might have blown on overpriced glasses of wine in Cannes. If you feel capable of similar sacrifice and charity...

It is not too late to donate.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A High Price To Pay

It’s a funny thing about parties. They are thrown with the best intentions and those that attend have nothing other to do than have a good time. If only it was that simple. First there's the stress about what to wear, then who to be seen with, who not to be seen with, which after-party have you been invited to, etc. If you are the host of the party you run the risk of upsetting someone you didn’t want to by not inviting them when you really ought to have. Of course, this is not a problem when people have to buy tickets to your party. If you want to go you buy a ticket; if you don’t you don’t. Simple.
The AICP know how to throw a good party. They’ve been doing it successfully for years and I have been attending for many of those years. People fly in from distant lands to attend. I know there are awards and panels, etc, but the main attraction is the party. And rightly so…it’s a great crowd at a great venue. Hard not to have a great party at MoMA.
It was great to catch up last night with so many people - some I hadn’t seen for years. Of course at some stage the conversation took on this sort of shape:
Reveller 1: Hello, how are you?
Reveller 2: Great…great…how are you??
R1: Great. Yeah…great. So how’s it going?
R2: Really well
R1: Great.
R2: You?
R1: Same. Yep. Really good. I mean we’ve had the odd blip this year.
R2: Us too. Bad start to the year but it’s hopefully picking up.
R1: The end of last year was rough for us but it seems a lot better at the moment.
R2: We’re actually quite busy at the moment but you know what budgets are like…
R1: Listen, I think this year is about survival and getting through this thing in as good a shape as possible.
R2: Absolutely…So, did you hear about…
Okay, you get the point. Those that didn’t have that conversation at some stage of the evening either weren’t comfortable enough to share that information or they felt they didn’t need to say it. But I’m not here to rant about the state of the industry (at least not today). We all know what it’s like. Who amongst us are able to charge exactly the same rate for the same services that we were last year or the year before? My guess is that you are either achieving lower rates or are holding your price but doing much more for it.
My question to the AICP is you must know that people are having conversations like these? I know many who are actively involved in the AICP and all are smart people who I have much respect for. If you are conscious that people have lost their jobs, some companies have closed and generally margins dropped significantly would this not have been a great opportunity for you to show some sensitivity and to lower ticket prices accordingly? $600 is a lot of money – I’m sure that MoMA doesn’t come cheaply and the food and drink needs to be covered. But seriously, would the party have been less fun if it had been held in a warehouse in Williamsburg? And I understand that you may have had to book this place way in advance but could you not have opted for a cheaper alternative to the fancy food that was served? As it was there appeared to be less bars than usual (unless there was a hidden one I didn’t find).
I just don’t think many other people in the industry are offering the same services (or less) than they were a year or two ago for the same price that they charged then. I was recently sent a link to a video message from Kathy Kiely, President of Ad Club: Her response to the current situation is thoughtful and shows great understanding.
So wasn’t last night a missed opportunity to show that the AICP is in touch with those it is seeking to represent? As I said, I didn’t have to buy a ticket. But I did. And a lot of other people did. And it was a great party. And maybe people just needed an excuse to escape from all of the mundanities. I just think that the AICP has stature within the industry and it would be great to show some strength and support by making a gesture that would acknowledge the state of the economy and helping to show leadership and guidance that we will all need to come out the other side.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Majority Report?

Today I am pleased to welcome our first guest blogger: Simon Whalley, Executive Producer of our Design/Digital Department. Simon and his colleagues are involved in the burgeoning world which not only looks out to - but also creates - the Digital Universe. A place where anything is possible! Here is the first of what I hope will be many blogs from Simon:

You know that something truly innovative has occurred when the hands free interface that was featured in Minority Report is something that you can buy at Target. Well, you can’t actually buy it right this minute, but it is on its way. Last week Xbox premiered Project Natal – a controller-free gaming environment. Xbox introduced it as a “revolutionary new way to play: no controller required”. This technology will not only appeal to the stereotypical young men that we think make up the gaming world, this device will appeal to everybody. There would be few people of any gender or background that would be able to see the website, watch the video ( and not want to own one as soon as it comes out. This technology promises to do what great technology does best, it will bridge together people from different worlds and industries.
This is truly an impressive development and it holds endless potential for gaming, social networking and the general day-to-day interface navigation of any electrical device.

I was speaking to someone the other day who said that the next person to crack the newest generation of interface would be triggering the next digital revolution. Could Microsoft have achieved this? Do they have any ideas for rolling this out in the non-gaming world? Will we be able to navigate our PCs using our hands, voices and facial expressions? (which some of us attempt to do anyway, it’s just that at the moment our computers are not responding to our screams, threats and grimaces!)

As creative professionals this opens the floodgates for us to create all manner of interactive and immersive imagery across different platforms, and I hope that we are able to embrace this concept. I know that I will try to be among the first wave of artists who are taking this technology to the next level. As the images in console games become ever more impressive, the distance between our industries is getting smaller and the lines are rapidly blurring. That really is something to get excited about.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

CaT...a tonic!

On Tuesday evening I was talking with a couple of friends and, unsurprisingly, the subject turned to the economy. More particularly, how do we know if we have hit the bottom and we are on the road to recovery? When will the stock market, the housing market, unemployment, retail spend, general confidence rebound?

I am sad to report that I don’t have a conclusive answer – although we certainly did our best to give a boost to the winemaking industry.

I was able to wake up the next morning (a good start) and I debated whether or not to buy a ticket to the CaT conference – a conference being hosted that day by Creativity magazine that focused on emerging technology and its use in the creative industry. I thought that the general idea of the conference was great, but in my field we already merge quite a bit of new technology into our creative work so I didn’t know how much I would get out of the event. I sprang (ahem!) out of bed after deciding that I couldn’t possibly go. There was no way I could excuse myself from the office for an entire day, too busy, totally irreplaceable, etc, blah.

At work I checked Facebook and got my daily fix of Charles Day’s blog: General Misconception.

It told a story of a company who had missed the innovation curve in the industry. They had lost sight of what it was that their customers wanted and they had believed that their brand alone could lead to continued success. Hmmm. It was only 10.30; I wouldn’t have missed much of the conference. I had another coffee.

After a viewing a few baby pictures and the fifteenth link to ‘Cassetteboy vs The Bloody Apprentice’ I saw that my friend, Kat Egan, was posting from the conference: “At the CaT's doing what a good conference should do...opening up the brain and new possibilities”.

Kat is one of those people who are listened to when they speak. As a partner at Exopolis she has helped to completely restructure the company so that it is relevant to her clients needs. She has not done this as a knee-jerk reaction to shrinking budgets, but as a deliberate strategy over the last decade. And if somebody like Kat was finding inspiration at the conference, I should be there finding inspiration as well. I headed up for the afternoon session and paid the $425 (earlier thinking would have saved a lot of that money) in order to attend the second half of the conference. A number of things instantly struck me:

  • The caliber of the attendees was extremely high.
  • The spirit of optimism and positivity that came off the podium and infused the audience was one of the most genuinely exciting things I have witnessed in a long time.
  • I didn’t understand one word of an entire section about Information Visualisation.
  • Most of the speakers were racing through their talks at breakneck speed because they had so much to convey in such a short space of time.

That latter point has as much to do with the huge technological developments that are changing our industry as it has to do with the economy. This show was originally conceived of as a two-day show but they thought that the costs involved for an inaugural two-day conference would be difficult to cover and the event was reduced to one day. I hope that the organizers more than covered their costs and that CaT will expand to two days next year.

The event was a breath of fresh air. I have no desire to spend any more time at conferences discussing the death of the 30 second commercial or how to survive when clients are asking you to do more for less. For a start, very few people are actually honest about the major issues because that would involve possibly upsetting a client or potential client. Secondly, traditional conferences can sometimes waste too much time discussing how to wring out a bit more from an old model. Yesterday, I was faced with many familiar faces from the industry but there was a totally unfamiliar sense of excitement about what we were hearing. We were shown by the presenters Facebook games, peer to peer multi-platform pranks, interactive augmented reality, a Radiohead music ‘video’ for House of Cards with an innovative use of scan data and the next phase of i-phone apps. We were lucky enough to hear a talk from Raven Zachary, who directed the launch of the i-phone app ‘Obama 08 for Obama America’. While each demonstration offered a new exciting way of getting a message across each also had a brand clearly (and often cleverly) associated with it. It was one of the clearest indications I have had that brands are beginning to understand how they can use this technology to build and expand their brand and message. Not only were the brands never subjugated at the expense of technology, but also the very people who were helping to develop ideas (and overcome the technological challenges) had a responsibility far beyond the delivery.

It was inspiring to see such a simplicity of business model. Many of those giving talks and demonstrations had started their own businesses and were working directly with clients in order to provide them with something fresh, innovative and relevant. The simplicity of this model, the clarity of the vision and the belief in the idea more than offsets the complexity of the coding and the difficulty of describing - and then selling to the client - something that has never been seen before.

Towards the end of the afternoon I bumped into both Charles and Kat and introduced them to each other. I explained how the two of them had inadvertently helped me make the decision that I should attend the conference. I also pointed out that I should take great credit for embracing the new (okay, newish) technologies of social networking that had enabled me to receive their messages. My day, and possibly my future, was altered by receiving these messages from a platform of distribution which was now relevant in my daily life.

The conference did not exactly answer all my questions from the night before. I still didn’t know when the economy will rebound. But as I walked out of the conference I experienced that clear-headedness for the first time in a long while as a great cloud lifted….and I also felt enlightened by the conference. I might not know precisely when the economy will turn around but, after experiencing an afternoon of such inspiration and ingenuity, I know it eventually will.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bagel? Check. Cawfee? Check. Attitood? Check. Welcome to NYC!

They say that you’re not a New Yorker until you’ve lived here five years. Well, then I’m a New Yorker.

While I have lived here for over five years, I don’t think that’s what did it for me. I think part of me was always a New Yorker. I love the smell, the feel, the taste of it. I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.

I was born in Liverpool and both my grandfather and father worked on ships that sailed over to New York. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon but we did have Campbell’s meatballs before anyone else on our street.

Then came television. So many programmes beamed images from this alluring city right into our front room: Batman, I Love Lucy, The Odd Couple. To this day, New York looks good on film and I certainly was seduced in my adolescence by films such as The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Annie Hall and, of course, a love story to the city, Manhattan.

So, here I am. An Englishman in New York. No…not a legal alien. Just an English Man in New York. And how best to reconcile these two facts? Well, I’ve been here for five years so what about some Top 5 lists?

Let’s start with the top 5 things I miss about the UK.

1) My kids. Of course. But they also love spending time in NYC.

2) Pubs. We are all drinking a lot less now and you can’t smoke in them any more, but there’s nothing quite like an English pub. Summer nights in Soho, crowds of revelers spilling into the roads and blocking the traffic. The Green Man, The Sun and Thirteen, The Dog and Duck….ah, what images these names conjure up!

3) Curry. I’m sorry New York…I love you but I just cannot find anything to compare with a classic English (Indian) Curry. You don’t even make proper English Popadoms…can’t be that difficult, can it?

4) Football. That’s football…not soccer. And I don’t mean televised football. You can see even more live games here than you can in England. No, I mean going to the game. Nothing quite like it. A pre-match drink (see 2) and then being herded into the ground (stadium) amongst fat, sweaty supporters but you don’t mind because they are wearing the right scarves. And half of them are threatening to do unspeakable things to other supporters…who are wearing the wrong scarves. But of course they don’t. This isn’t the 1970s.

5) Weather. Or more specifically, I miss talking about the weather. In truth, I don’t miss the weather at all (apart from a few skin-freezing cold weeks in a New York Winter when I’d settle for some low grey clouds and miserable rain). No, I miss the banter. “Nice day!”…”Could be worse…” ..”Bit warmer than last week”….”Looks like it might rain again”…”Maybe it’ll brighten up?”….”Maybe…”….”Hmmm”.

Yep, it’s what put the Great into Great Britain.

And the Top 5 things I like about New York…?:

1) Landmarks. Of course, let’s start with the obvious. They’re iconic: The Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, Chrysler Building. Like I said we grew up watching them on Film and TV. They were as familiar to me as a kid as Big Ben, Buckingham Palace or…Big Ben.

2) It’s Cosmopolitan! London is supposed to be the city in which the most variety of languages are spoken. But the point is that there is a bedrock of society in London that believes “if you ain’t got a pearly whistle in your closet then you’ll get a swift kick in the orchestra stalls and told to sling your hook”.

Frankly, that’s a language no-one can understand.

But New York is welcoming to anyone pitching up with good energy. And you don’t even have to stop at Ellis Island any more!

3) Food. Not the quality – though it is undeniably first class. I’m talking about the sheer volume of it. At last! Finally, I can get the majority of a small cow stuffed enticingly into a sandwich with only just enough room left for a thin spread of mustard. Oh…and cheese. And tomatoes. And maybe…no. Oh go on then, I’ll have some ham on it as well. Genius. It’s a five course meal between two slices of bread…!

4) Grid system. Another brilliant idea. Apparently, two hundred years ago the streets were very much like London. Manhattan – or, as it was called then, New London - was an island of hills and undulations and the roads followed their twists and turns. The streets had names such as “Sharp Hairpin Drive”, “Bendy Street” and “Reasonably Straight Avenue”. Of course, the 20th century brought the rise of the motor car and the island was razed to the ground and the grid system was introduced so that cabbies stood a chance of knowing where they were supposed to be going. It almost worked.

5) Never having to say you’re sorry. What could better illustrate the difference in cultures than the word sorry? The English never stop using it…and New Yorkers never use it. Modern England is founded on a Society of Manners. These days sorry is used for everything – if you can’t hear someone, if you want someone to pass you something, even if you bump into somebody else. And of course - heaven forbid – if you make a mistake. One sorry would certainly not be enough in this instance. Many ‘sorrys’ would be uttered - at least one preceded by an ‘awfully’. Not so in New York. After all, Dick Cheney shot a friend in the face and he didn’t even say sorry. So you certainly won’t hear the word if you have to take something back to a shop or complain about service or find yourself in any situation in which someone has done you wrong. The word implies culpability. And this is New York. We ain’t admitting to nothing.

Unless it’s the claim that this is the Best City in the World…and then we are guilty as charged.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Backing Out...

I read a great piece by Jerry Solomon on Cost Consultants today:

One of his points is that he is often no longer required to bid a job. Instead, he is asked to ‘back out’ of a figure presented to him by an agency.

It’s an expression I’m hearing a lot more of these days. We have often asked an agency ‘Well, how much DO you have for effects?’ after several rounds of bidding a job and being told ‘We don’t have that kind of money’. I can see the sense of cutting to the chase and being told up front exactly how much money they have. That way, we can either accept that or politely decline.

The problem I have though is when the job happens to be a significantly FX heavy job (i.e. 60% or more of the final master will be originated as VFX/CGi). We are still being told that for a job that we have bid for around $600k in terms of VFX/CGi - and that after applying a voluntary discount of 30% - that they have backed out a figure and they only have $150k for us. It does not seem possible, or fair, for us to do produce the majority of what will end upon the screen (in some cases we even provide the ‘talent’ in the form of a Computer Generated Star) while receiving only a small portion of the budget.

If the overall budget for the spot is $500k, our bid for the FX came in at $600k (discounted) and we are being told that there is only $150k left for FX, experience tells me that the fact that we are being asked to bid on this could mean one of the following:

a) The agency producer wants some ammunition to help kill a particular idea from creatives who had a great idea that was totally out of line with the budget.

b) The hope is that someone will ‘fall in love with the idea’ and will invest some of their own time and money to get it onto their reel.

c) They think that someone may be desperate enough to take it on.

All this is understandable. These are challenging times. My problem is when there is a budget of over a million dollars on a heavy FX job but the numbers back out to leave us with under 10% of that budget. Less than 10% to produce over 60% of the total visual content of the spot? Really? And what could be taking up so much of the budget on a heavy FX spot? It’s not the music, it’s not the sound design. It could be the agency travel and accommodation allowance on the shoot. But that couldn’t be all of it.

No, it would appear that directors are more willing than ever to propose that they shoot a lot more in camera. So naturally shoot costs are higher. Back when techniques weren’t as advanced – and there were many more commercials being shot – we would ask the production to shoot elements that we needed to make the FX work. We were often told that there was no time and that we could just ‘make it work’ in Post. Now, most jobs appear to require more time to shoot material that we end up not using.

I understand that these productions are underfunded and that another shoot day is another shoot day. We all need to make our money. I certainly can’t fault a Production Company trying to get as many shoot days as possible – I’m sure for that most part they feel like there is never enough time.

However, from my perspective, companies such as ours have some of the highest Capital Expenditure requirements and some of the highest fixed staff costs so whether a job comes in or not we will be spending out hundreds of thousands of dollars a month in overheads. So when an agency asks a Production Company to back out of an overall budget for an FX intensive spot, and it leaves a figure that doesn’t cover costs, that constitutes a problem.

There are still productions which don’t operate in this way and, understandably, it’s with clients and production companies with whom we have the best relationships. There is still never enough time or money but even at the budgeting stage the allocation of money shows the amount of respect given to our part of the process and it should come as no surprise that these are invariably the most collaborative, most creative and best executed productions of all.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Business of Altering Reality

I recently saw this short item in the New York Times:

Doubled profits at DreamWorks Animation? Their revenue jumped by 68%? While I am impressed with these figures, I am not surprised by these huge profits at DreamWorks. There is a recession going on out there and people need to escape that fact. There have been countless stories lately about different sectors of the entertainment industry that are dodging the recession bullet. The video gaming industry grew by 10% last year, exceeding analysts and their gloomy forecasts by huge margins. Ticket sales at movie theaters are up as well. True, the cinemagoers are probably smuggling in their own food and drink rather than pay double the cost for their watered-down and sugared-up concessions, but it says something that in these economic times they are willing to part with $11 for two hours of distraction.

This increased movie going during economic slumps is not new. During the Great Depression in the 1930’s, Americans went to the movies en masse. It was their one chance to escape their hardships and they spent whatever money that could be spared to go watch Jimmy Stewart and Carole Lombard on the big screen. Their reality could not be altered, so they wanted to watch the better, richer and more screwball lives of others.*

But during this economic slump there is a difference; we have actually learned how to alter our reality, not just escape it. We live in a world of alternate realities. We can create any type of on-line life we want. I can open an E-Harmony account, steal the photo of the best looking man I can find on-line and instantly be a 6’4”, former Olympian and current titan of industry. I could send out Tweets from the loo in Buckingham Palace one day and from the flightdeck of AirForce One the next. If I had the patience for Second Life, I could become a virtual rock star in a virtual band.

I suppose that a lot of us who are drawn to a job in the VFX/CGi world have a tendency to want to alter reality; to create something more beautiful, or interesting or just different than what we see or how we see it. Great art can come out of some very dull or very dark places. I’m not suggesting that everything done in the name of VFX/CGi is Art – but at it’s best the fusion of creativity and technology can produce some breathtaking images that can alter our current perspective or transport us to another time or place.

When our own world seems challenging at best and frightening at worst, I take pride that I work for a company that creates entertainment to offer a short respite from reality for people. Our London office has just finished up Where the Wild Things Are, the latest film from Spike Jonze based on the classic children’s book by Maurice Sendak. Our main contribution was to add character, performance and life to the faces of Wild Things and help to realise an extraordinary project. As ever with the CG work that we do on films, if the characters don’t work then the film doesn’t work. It’s ironic that it is the realism of characters that are not based in reality (Wild Things, talking polar bears in Golden Compass, Hippogriff in Harry Potter) that makes the movie ‘believable’ and help us to escape from the mundane or the stressful.

Wild Things is the ultimate story about an altered reality, instead of serving out his time out in silence, Max grows a wild and fertile forest in his imagination and journeys to the land of the Wild Things. The ultimate animation tools that are helping to stretch the limits of the imagination and push back the boundaries of reality will be used to tell this ultimate story of escapism. We all have things to forget, even if it’s just the fact that we were once so naughty that we had to go to bed without any supper.

* I know that Television had a massive impact on cinema going. From the time of TV’s introduction in the ‘50s ticket sales declined from 3 billion to 1 billion in 1970. For an interesting take on that relationship you should read this blog by Charles Day.