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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8 January
ibrews

B

 

Synopsis: Hugh Jackman hangs out in a cabin in the woods, alternating scenes between two different women in what seems to be a linear story. Spoilers to follow.

 

Hoorah!

  • Maybe halfway through the show I caught onto the notion that we were probably actually watching two separate stories from the cabin, but that Hugh’s character just had a ‘system’ for taking women to the cabin… hopefully not involving murder. It was a fun revelation. Shortly after, Hugh talks about his uncle, who used to take women to the cabin all the time, but really just for a lay, and had a whole routine for getting their pants off. Hugh’s character says he never wants to be like that, and that he reserved the cabin for the great love of his life. Well… there’s two women so… how’s that work? There’s a lovely moment where you think the second woman is his ‘great love’ (because we see her in a red dress) and the first woman was brought some time later out of a desire to recapture some spirit of his great love lost through imitation, asking her to wear that same red dress. But then that woman also makes a comment about the picture of a woman in a red dress that confirms that she’s not the original. It was a fun puzzle working all of this out during the show– certainly kept me attentive.
  • Reminded me a little of a great short story by Adolfo Bioy Casares called ‘The Invention of Morel’ which also deals with a repetition of sequence and romance in a similar way.
  • I always love when a character speaks confidently and with enthusiasm about something they know a lot about. So Hugh Jackman talking about fish, especially the stuff about sea trout and how strong they get, was awesome. Also seemed to serve as an analogy for how every time he brings a woman here, maybe it makes him a little bit stronger or the pain a little bit less. Not overt though.
  • Section of the play clearly designed around lady boners: Hugh takes the fish the woman caught, prepares it, cooks it, serves it. Mmmmm is what all the ladies thought. Apparently he cut his thumb pretty bad one night and it wouldn’t stop bleeding! Yikes. That must have been rough show to be in the audience for.
  • Great simple set — really felt like a cabin, and I love the theater! Circle in the Square has a really brilliant thrust stage that provides intimacy and a natural intensity.
  • I’m a sucker for a good sound design. I don’t recall much in the way of music cues (though those certainly could have gone a long way toward clarifying some of the more ambiguous aspects of the show), but the rain and nature sounds definitely helped transport me to this remote cabin near a river.
  • I’m also a sucker for accents. Sure, it seems a little strange to have an Australian, a Brit, and an Irish character all supposedly living near the same location, but I enjoyed all of their accents (and the natural effect those accents had in shaping their characters) that I didn’t mind.
  • Hugh is known for really going big, so it was nice to see him restrained… quieter, more of an enigma. However, I think there was a missed opportunity in that one really powerful blast of his natural energy could have gone a long way toward providing a peak to contrast with the valleys of energy in the show. Anger? Elation? Discovery? It wouldn’t have mattered– just give us something.
  • The singing was a nice touch– I liked the poem. Another missed opportunity though– why not have Hugh ever join in the singing? His character’s obviously familiar with the song/poem, and he has a beautiful voice. It could have shown a moment when he’s syncing up with the memory of his dead/lost/forgotten love in a potentially beautiful fashion.

 

Blech…

  • I really can’t stand it in theater when someone monologues uninterrupted for a period of time, especially when the monloguing individual is accusing someone of something that they clearly want to rebut. No one sits in silence during something like that, and it takes me totally out of the reality of the show. This happened a lot.
  • Not sure if this was a directing or acting choice, but whenever Hugh was being asked a question he didn’t want to answer like ‘how many women have you brought here?’ or ‘who’s the woman in the red dress with her face scratched out’, all I registered on his face was dumbfound confusion. That kind of ambiguity was frustrating, because it had me wondering if he was crazy and really didn’t remember the other women, or it was simple a painful memory he was trying to suppress. Showing some genuine, specific emotion in these moments would have been far more powerful and effective at drawing empathy from the audience.
  • Why didn’t Hugh’s character just move the picture of his first love with her face scratched out? Did he want the other women discovering this secret? Was that part of the routine? I mean, that would be kind of interesting, but that’s not the kind of thing best left ambiguous.
  • In the final scene, we have a third woman (one of the understudies) who comes gathers water and asks Hugh if he really thinks she’ll be able to learn to catch a fish. And Hugh smiles and says something like ‘oh yeah. the trout are really racing today.’ I’m not sure what I was supposed to take from that. It seems silly to introduce a third ‘imitation’ woman to the mix, so she must have been the original woman he loved. But why show us this? It might have made me tear up a little if I really felt the connection between Hugh and his long-lost love throughout the show, but again, whenever she was being evoked, all I got from him was a kind of ‘duh-doy’ blank face. Furthermore, it’s tricky to give someone who is supposedly his ‘perfect love’ a physical form, as there’s too much opportunity in the short time seeing them together to question if there was really anything between them and if there was actually anything special about her. Seems better to just leave that relationship up to the audience’s imagination.

 

Tales from after the show:

As is wont to happen at Broadway (and West End shows), the actors came out after the show to raise awareness (and money) for Broadway Cares, a wonderful charity that provides all manner of support to families living with HIV/AIDS. I did a bowl-a-thon for them a couple weeks ago! Anyway, Hugh ended the show covered in water, and so has some fun getting the audience, right then and there, to bid on his shirt. Very quickly he identified two individuals who had the money to make a sizable donation (one man and one woman). Playing them off each other, he upped the donations by talking about how they’ll get to spend time with him in his dressing room after the show and “we’ll do whatever you want. Within reason of course!” The woman bidding had a man next to her who, after the bid reached about $7000, buried his face in his hands. Hugh called him out apologizing, asking if that was her husband. Her answer “No, he’s my financial advisor.” Awesome. Finally, the bidding leveled out at $11,000, at which point Hugh announced that actually, he had to change his shirt, so there are two shirts. “So how about we make a really sizable donation to a really excellent charity tonight, boh of you donate $11,000, you’ll both get a shirt, and you’ll both get to come backstage.” In a final perfect moment, the woman asked “When?” Hugh said “Now!” and finally, from the woman, “Hold on, I have to pee!”

 

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8 January
ibrews

B

 

Full disclosure: I was given free tickets to this through Jules Fisher, the lighting designer and one of the partners at my design firm.

 

Hoorah!

  • Great performances from everyone, particularly the two lead women playing Daisy and Violet.
  • Some memorable, genuinely catchy music.
  • Stylish, functional set from David Rockwell.
  • THE BEST LIGHTING DESIGN EVER from Jules Fisher 🙂

 

Blech…

  • Missed opportunities at the ending for feeling more full circle — since we go from them in a sleazy freak show to them in a high-paying freak show, a reprise of ‘Come Look at the Freaks,’ maybe in a minor key, would have been fitting.
  • I would prefer a more daring, darker look at this material versus the sanitized, quasi-glamorized, Lifetime-movie version of it.

 

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