23 May
ibrews

B+

 

Seeing Neil LaBute shows has become a pseudo-regular thing for me, not so much because I know that I’ll enjoy it, but because I know I’ll have a strong opinion about it.

 

Hoo-rah!

  • An all-and-all good time at the theater.
  • Strong character and context reveals that reframe the story. Without spoiling anything, think ‘Superbad’ meets ‘Cruel Intentions’
  • A short play!
  • With only two characters and one set, my attention was held.
  • Scintillating stage debut by Amanda Seyfried who manages to subvert the ‘girlfriend prize’ archetype with some strongly-written monologues that she nails.
  • Refreshingly upbeat ending. ‘Making a fuss’ has never been quite that fun and romantic without feeling overly-cheesy.

Blech…

  • Most generic title ever. Every time I try to tell someone the name of the play I have to look it up again. It’s up there with ‘The Shape of Things’ and ‘This is How It Goes’ for totally bland, could-be-about-anything titles.
  • 80 minutes was about 50 minutes too long. If there is an 80-minute version of this story, it’s one that doesn’t keep hitting the same beats over and over and actually delves more into the deeper implications of this relationship. But really, it should be a one act.
  • The lighting design was confusing– the window curtains were lit to look just like daylight was hitting them, but then when they’re pulled back we see nothing but blackness. I thought ‘fine, it’s before sunrise’, but then I would have expected a rising sun or blue-ing sky as the play progressed, but no, nothing. Also the apartment hall light was off. I’ve never been in an apartment where the hall light was ever off.
  • Not a huge fan of the character Thomas Sadoski was playing, or the performance. I think we were supposed to find him endearingly indecisive, but he just came off as obnoxious and obstinate. Which now that I think about it, seems to be a common trend for male leads in LaBute plays (I’m looking at you, male lead in ‘Fat Pig’). Also, here’s the characterization of him: a muscle-ripped Star Wars nerd who can’t articulate any of his thoughts but is a super man slut dating multiple women at a time. What? Does that occur in nature?
  • While I did enjoy the reveals, I wish more seeds had been planted for them earlier in the show. It should always be theoretically possible for an audience to figure these things out before they’re told to us, but without any clues, that’s impossible.
  • There’s a lot of small changes to dialogue and story progression that I felt would make the play stronger, but hey, now I’m inspired to write my own take on the material. I do wonder though how many refinement passes a Neil LaBute play tends to receive, because while I generally like the ideas in them, they always seem to have a slapdash quality to them.

 

Tales from before the show…

 

Other Neil LaBute shows I’ve seen: Fat Pig, The Mercy Seat, The Break of Noon, and Reasons to be Happy (I know he doesn’t capitalize it but screw that). I didn’t love any of them, but they all provoked a strong reaction from me, and even a negative reaction is better than a ‘meh’ one. If nothing else, I find that if I hate something about his shows, it causes me to think critically about why exactly I hated it and then I learn something about myself. Hooray!

 

I decided to go to this show because I had a 10:30 flight out of JFK and wanted to see a play or movie after work. I felt confident this would be short enough to get out of there in time. An hour before the show I was able to get a ’30-under-30′ ticket, saving me significant cash vs. the 90+ dollar standard ticket price. I hung out in the 2econd stage cafe and a woman struck up a conversation with me. We talked about theater shows in NY vs. London, our respective professions, and some of the VR work I’m doing. She also invests in theater shows. That was cool, because then I was able to bring up her arts interest to the folks at the New Moran during my business meeting the next day in Burlington. Also, Neil LaBute was at the show (oh right, opening night!) and I pointed him out to the woman I was speaking with. Without missing a beat she went to introduce herself. I admire that kind of forthrightness– I should feel more comfortable saying hi by now.

 

Oh yeah, and the timing of the play was perfect– I arrived at my gate in JFK right as boarding began!

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12 May
ibrews

B

 

At the Opera America conference I was fortunate enough to be invited to a dress rehearsal of Cinderella at the Kennedy Performing Arts Center. It was one of the more hilarious operas I’ve ever seen, but it should have been half the length.

 

Hoo-rah!

  • Nice twist on the traditional Cinderella storyline I’m familiar with, and by ‘twist’ I mean I think this was written before Disney, and even before the Grimm’s fairytale version. Here it’s an evil stepfather instead of stepmother, a merlin-esque wizard instead of a fairy godmother, and a cool extra subplot with the prince swapping places with his valet. Also no glass slipper or Cinderella running away.
  • The rats were hilarious.
  • The valet/prince switcheroo was hilarious.
  • In fact, all the actors had great comic timing and had fantastic physicality in their performances.
  • Solid set design.
  • The plotline really kicked into gear when we got to the castle.
  • Pretty music. One of the songs that worked as a kind of round has been stuck in my head for days (and I don’t really mind!)

 

Blech…

  • It took a long time for the show to get going. I was struggling to stay awake for a lot of act 1.
  • Even when things did take off, there were scenes that would reach their ‘point’ 2 minutes in, but then there’d be another 10 minutes of vamping on the emotions that were already established. There were times when we were shown a line of supertitles (the opera is in Italian), then would not see the next line for over a minute.
  • That’s really it. Just edit it down!
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4 May
ibrews

B

 

I don’t see much opera, and I might have some unmitigatable issues with the form, but this was fun.

 

Hoo-rah!

  • Clean, classic, straight-forward ‘devil tempts naive lazy fellow’ story executed well. Coincidentally, I just rewatched The Devil’s Advocate earlier this week, so this was a great companion piece.
  • Some really bizarre but hilarious flourishes in the story, like the hero ‘inventing’ a steam-power machine that turns rocks into bread, and spending all of his money on it.
  • Sometimes on-the-nose subtext (or rather text) is hilarious. Our main character actually says out loud “Oh I wish I had money!”
  • Fantastic performance from Gerald Finley as Nick Shadow. He played the role with a delicious, sneering charisma and held the stage wonderfully whenever he was around. Also great physicality.
  • My second favorite performance was Margaret Lattimore as the bearded lady, credited as ‘Mother Goose.’ No idea within the context of the show why she was so popular with the townspeople, but the performance sold it.
  • Loved the set design. Reminded me of when I first started modeling in Google Sketchup, just seeing what big fun playful forms I could make. The scale of everything did a great job of diminishing Tom Rakewell and providing the sense that he’s been swept up in larger-than-life events that he can’t possibly control.

 

Blech…

  • None of the music was particularly memorable for me. Every time something started to become melodic, memorable, catchy– anything like that– it would suddenly deteriorate back into generic opera sing-talking.
  • The costuming was super bland, and especially with such a large cast it was easy for the main characters to fade into the sea of ensemble players.
  • Didn’t really care about our hero Mr. Thomas Rakewell. I blame both the naive-to-a-fault depiction of the character and a mas-o-menos performance.
  • Confused by Mr. Rakewell marrying the bearded lady, especially because she wasn’t an established character ahead of time and he seemed to really love his betrothed at the beginning. He just did it to be… extreme? A lot of people marry interesting people when they can, and this was an interesting choice, but I would’ve appreciated more justification for it. Also, partially due to our distance and partially due to the lack of establishing it as a key trait, we didn’t notice the bearded lady was bearded until after the first act. More beard!
  • After our hero defeats the devil, I think all the wind was knocked out of the show, and I did not need to spend 20 more minutes with Mr. Rakewell at the asylum hallucinating about his lost love. Yawn.

 

Tales from the audience:

  • We did that thing where we looked at the seating chart when buying our tickets and found a spot where the price jacked up one seat over, then at the show the more expensive seats weren’t sold so we were able to move over to the more expensive seats. We didn’t though. Still, nice to spread out!
  • Since I design theaters and seat views for a living, I couldn’t help but notice a bunch of the show was not viewable from people in the box seats. They were standing up, leaning over , and still not seeing what they needed to.
  • Very cool to see a limited run show on opening night. There’s a palpable energy to a bunch of performers excited to show you what they’ve been working on for the first time.
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9 January
ibrews

I know it’s been a few months (wow 4 already? geezum…) but I thought it would be great to leave a few thoughts about my first experience putting together my first short film. And yes, this is technically the ‘theatre’ section of my website, but whatever; it was adapted from one of my plays so shut up– who asked you Steve?

 

For those who don’t know, about a year ago Alex Schmidt and I thought that play from a couple years ago would make a great little film and were asking around to see if anyone would be interested in making it. Literally within a couple weeks of starting this search, Nick Douglas at Slacktory saw the filmed version of ‘The Following is Based on True Events (from a Video Game),’ then asked out of the blue how I would feel about adapting it as a short film for Slacktory. Awesome! I was nervous about doing so much myself, but knew if nothing else it would be a huge learning experience (surprise! It was).

 

We filmed it in January, then my year got crazy busy, and I did most of the editing/VFX in the month of August, trying to get it out before The Sims 4 but missing by a couple weeks. Still! What a thrill, and I’m all warm and fuzzy from the responses of the nearly ten thousand hits it has gotten (wow! that’s gotta be at least a thousand percent more people than those who saw the play version!) Anyway, I talked about some filmy stuff during the process at my friend’s website, Filmpunch here, but for myself and anyone who’s curious, here’s my pro and con list (also know as my Hoorah! and Blech…list) looking back at the whole process:

 

Stuff that worked well:

using high quality lapel mics. That made a big difference! Nothing makes something visual seem unprofessional quicker than low-quality audio.

playing with lines and ideas in the moment. It’s fun! And sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle and something in the moment makes a scene far better than it was as written. For example, I liked all the ways we played with the puppet and the joke. Also the weird creepy angle through the chairs.

using greenscreen to capture a lot of different angle.  We were able to get a lot of cool shots and coverage that would have been hard or impossible without greenscreen.

mix of real and digital props. It was fun making stuff appear and disappear. It also helped with aligning the backgrounds to have multiple real world things that defined the perspective. In the future, it would be cool also to have a virtual, greenscreened prop.

rendering in 3ds max. Heck, I can’t believe I did it all in mental ray (vray is my preferred render engine). It was nice to have 3 layers– ambient occlusion, beauty pass, and global illumination pass. Blending those also gave me some nice options. And very subtle, but I was able to increase the intensity of the shadows while the night goes on. Hooray for things no one but me will notice!

Keep GUI stuff as a separate layer. Admittedly, it was a little tricky to deal with some 1 or 2 second cuts done at the last minute to tighten the film, but there was a nice clarity of purpose to having this entire ‘second layer’ of story being independent of the rest of the film, and I think it kept the realtime-playback fairly smooth.

use actors like TJ and Mike. It was really great to re-unite with these guys. Consummate professionals, they knew their lines, and we already had a rapport that made it very easy to have fun with them on set and still get stuff done within our allotted time. It’s nice to have some known quantities within a super-new process.

use Production Assistants like Alex and Nick. Not only do both of these guys have more experience in film-making than me, but they’re also just sweet, generous patient guys. On the day of filming, Nick took care of audio, and Alex did odd jobs from fixing the green screen to running out to buy burgers (which are surprisingly hard to get at 10 AM). When I was deep in editing, they were both super helpful with getting me to make some hard choices. Surround yourself with good people and good things will happen.
Stuff I would do differently next time:

— tracking dots: either make them bigger or don’t have them at all. Tracking dots exist to replicate camera moves for chroma-keyed backdrops. I assumed they’d be easy to get rid of. BOY WAS I WRONG. I made them too small, and basically that meant that there was no ‘automatic’ way to get rid of them. In fact, I was trying to get rid of so many (using the 4D clone brush in After Effects), that in the end I seemed to overwhelm After Effects to the point where I had to render out the video, remove more, dots, and then repeat that again!

rent or borrow higher quality cameras. I’d really like to work with true HD, and not have issues like an unfocused camera (though that was totally my fault.) Using something like a 4K camera also, for example, allows for some zooming/panning within a steady shot while still maintaining HD quality. On a similar note, it would be great to have a real cinematographer, you know, with a sense of composition and stuff like that (not my strong suit, never will be).

don’t use real light… I kind of knew this would be a problem from the start, but we had a skylight in the apartment we were filming, and of course that light was inconsistent, sometimes changing drastically in a single shot.

Only chroma key the final shots… I thought I was going to save myself some time by setting up the chroma key and digital backgrounds for ALL of my coverage (3+ hours with two cameras), and I figured that this would be great because instead of inserting the backgrounds for the same angle 5 times, I would only have to do it once per angle. The problem was there were all sorts of subtle little changes during the longer takes and background would get slightly (or a lot) off. Further, sometimes it was very difficult to identify the take I needed to fix something in, and I would end up fixing background elements for three or four takes that I was not actually using in the final cut. Further due to this, the Adobe After Effects files soon became too large and cumbersome to smoothly work with. Next time: lock the final cut without special fx, then one shot at a time go through and set it up. For the multiple takes, just copy the precomps across the different shots. And just… don’t make a lot of changes later! Front load the visual decisions.

use the greenscreen techniques I learned on Starship Ickarus. I was brought onto the cracked.com web series Starship Ickarus at the same time I was working on my Sims film, and learned some super pro-tip methods of handling green screen (particularly regarding blur and green spill).

actually get around to learning about color correcting. Admittedly, I think the result on this was fine– I don’t imagine a lay person is too distracted, but I certainly didn’t know what I was doing. It was basically– ah! that’s too dark… let’s adjust the levels. I also would have had a lot less green tint if I had used my Starship Ickarus techniques.

 

So weee! It was a lot of work, a great experience, and in the end I’m glad I put in those extra hours cleaning up tracking dots, even though it was a bit of a nightmare. And now, greenscreen is easy!

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9 January
ibrews

B+

 

I’ve never actually seen the proper dance  version of The Nutcracker before, though several TV versions growing up. Interestingly, it set up certain expectations…

 

Hoo-rah!

  • I was vicariously super happy for the kids performing on stage. What a cool opportunity at that age to be in front of such a huge audience! Their dancing and acting was enthusiastic and a joy.
  • Loved the set for the house and the visual way the kids spying on the living room was done with a skrim.
  • The tree is a wonderful way of transitioning into a dream, and it felt surreal even in the audience to watch an already-large tree ‘grow’ to 10x its size. I was grinning like a schoolboy through the whole sequence.
  • Some really lovely dancing. My wife, as a dancer, enjoyed it like a fine wine. I enjoyed it like a juice box.
  • The snowflake forest set was gorgeous and cold and magical.
  • The Land of Sugar had a lovely dream-like quality to it.
  • The rat costumes, particularly for the rat king, was disturbing as all heck and worked like gangbusters.
  • Also really liked the sugar land ballerina costumes with stiff tutus. I gave a different quality to their dancing.
  • The music! I love the music in the Nutcracker, though was surprised to note that I recognized very few pieces in the first act but nearly all from the second.

 

Blech…

  • Beyond not recognizing the music in the first act, I also just found it surprisingly bland and unmemorable.
  • The outfits for the Mirliton dancers, who were clearly the leads of the second act, made them look as bland as could be. Mint green? Really?
  • Narratively, there’s no conflict after the death of the Rat King, so there aren’t any stakes through the entire second act. Everything is happy! It’s meant for kids, so fine, but I guess I was spoiled growing up watching Mickey’s Nutcracker, in which the Rat King follows them to the Land of Sugar and momentarily wreaks some havoc there before being transformed into a character from the original party.
  • This is really nitpicking, but it struck me as odd that the show ended with the kids flying in a sleigh off stage. Yes, it was beautiful, but don’t we need to see the girl waking up? Don’t we need subtle confirmation that this was indeed all a dream? Can’t we have a moment of melancholy where, just for a moment, she’s sad the whole thing wasn’t real?
  • Since we never get that confirmation, I’m just going to assume that her godfather put her in cryosleep, and 5000 years later she awoke to a dystopian world full of human-size rats, cities made of candy, and anthropomorphic nutcracker dolls.

 

Tales from intermission:

  • Very unclassy, but I had dollar pizza in my bag that I hadn’t gotten a chance to eat before the show since my wife’s train was delayed. I struggled to find subtle ways of ripping off chunks of it, but managed.
  • My wife pre-ordered me a whisky, though it was so smoky it reminded me more of the scotches I’m familiar with. I’ve decided that scotch is a gateway scotch for me; when I drink scotch, it makes me want more scotch.
  • I was sad to find no drinks were allowed in the theater. The amount of scotch/whiskey I had would usually last me over an hour, but I had to drain most if it in about a second. Sad sad.
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