The VFX dilemma: It’s not easy being green

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If it weren’t for VFX (visual effects) people, that’s just what Avatar and Lord of the Rings would look like.

There’s a lot of buzz on the internet right now about Bill Westenhofer’s suddenly-interrupted Oscar speech for “The Life of Pi.” Many people are interpreting this as a deliberate sabotage or a snub of VFX workers, but everything I have read seems to indicate that all participants were briefed early on about how much time they would have (one minute) and what would happen if they went overtime (the music from “Jaws”, followed by a cutaway.) It would seem that Mr. Westenhofer was simply not aware of how quickly one minute passes, and instead of jumping straight to his message, he exulted in the moment – which is what Oscar wins are for anyway.

I can’t speak to reality, because I just don’t have enough information. By Occam’s Razor it would indicate more happenstance than malice was at work here. But the more important point is that the event brought the entire issue of VFX studios into the public eye, and that’s a good thing.

Longtime critic and commentator Drew McWeeny published an open letter to Hollywood yesterday, and if you’re a consumer of films, either from Hollywood or independent producers, you would do a lot worse than to read this article – and the following commentary, which is just as enlightening.

The executive summary? Major studios are inserting hard objects into every possible orifice of VFX companies, who in turn are inserting hard objects into every possible orifice of those who work for them. And that’s the polite version. But read the letter, and the commentary, and then branch out and do your own research.

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None of this is new, of course. “The Wizard of Speed and Time,” while a delightful and entertaining film in its own right, is essentially a rant by Mike Jittlov about having hard objects inserted into every possible orifice by the movie studios of his own time… and things have only gotten worse. Now, instead of creative geniuses like Jittlov working on their own and being screwed, we have entire stables of very talented people being worked insane hours without compensation (either not being paid overtime, or not being paid at all beyond their base wages), having no benefits, being classified as independent contractors despite working full-time for their companies, having no representation, simply seeing their jobs eliminated as studios outsource their work to places like India, having their whereabouts monitored, and even being threatened with physical abuse if they don’t perform like gods. Two other good reads are at the VFX Soldier and io9.

Granted, this is the outrage du jour. Public fickleness being what it is, the tempest will calm and people will go back to their lives as soon as yesterday… but for those working in the industry, the intolerable conditions will continue. But it raises a question in my own mind: as a consumer, what’s my responsibility?

Many people are up in arms about genetically modified foods, and consumers right and left are declining to shop at places that sell GMO’s; many people refuse to buy coffee that isn’t Fair Trade; Apple felt the pressure of public outrage and stepped up their game with their Chinese suppliers; even humble quinoa has raised a few eyebrows after it was found that increasing Western demand has so raised prices that local producers can no longer afford their own product. People get mad about stuff, and they do things.

It’s long been known that (with a few notable exceptions in cases of truly ethical companies), the only way to influence an industry is to hit it where it really hurts – in the wallet. Hollywood studios are interested in only one thing – maximizing dollars for themselves, and minimizing dollars spent on other people. Those dollars, however, come from us. You and me. The lovers of Avatar, The Lord of the Rings, The Avengers, you name it. If it were not for these talented people (and the writers, of course, but that’s another essay), I would not have been able to laugh myself silly watching Hulk toss Loki around like a rag doll – best moment in the whole film, if you ask me – these films would be worth less than nothing without the VFX people behind the visual magic.

It’s a tough issue, because good movies are a large part of my entertainment, and a great way to escape the daily grind, or to forget about the douchebaggery and unfairness that pervades 21st-Century society. Giving up all movies until the VFX people have fair and effective representation would be one solution, but would have little effect unless enough people chose this route to cut revenues for Hollywood, and the chances of that are… well, “snowball in Hell” is what comes to mind.

At the very least, I can contribute to raising the awareness of people about the issue. This article is a tiny drop in the ocean, but it’s a lot of tiny drops coming together that create a flood. I can also be more judicious about what I watch and when, and continue to think about the issue from the consumer side. The people who are at the heart of more and more movies at least deserve that much consideration.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

The Useless Web: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

First, we’ll start off with the bad. That’s simply when you go to a page you thought would contain the content you were looking for, and all you get is this:

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Of course, many websites (such as Livejournal in this case) have very creative 404 pages, which tends to reduce the sting a little bit.

Then, there’s the Ugly. These are data aggregators which are designed by black-hat SEO types; their only purpose is to get you to click on links for which they will be paid. For example, this morning I was looking for a reference to the “smiler“, an alternative punctuation mark which I first heard about in the early 60’s, about the same time as I learned of the interrobang. The “smiler” looked like this: ‿ and was designed to function as an irony mark, this long before the invention of the emoticon. Unfortunately, the preponderance of the latter, combined with the ubiquitous “smiley face,” has all but buried any possible reference to the mark I was looking for, and indeed it might have had a different name.

At any rate, I Googled for “alternative punctuation,” and the first hit on the list was this:

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This, children, is called “spamdexing.” The Wikipedia article referenced above also calls it “search engine poisoning,” and that’s about as accurate as you could want. I left a comment on their website, to wit:

“Here is a perfect example of one of the worst evils of the Internet – aggregators that offer nothing but hqiz , and pollute valid search results. This page has virtually zero to do with alternate punctuation (for example, the interrobang) and instead plugs in an SEO search phrase plus reams of unrelated camel ejecta. Thank you very little.”

Unfortunately, the web is full of this sort of douchebaggery; even “more legitimate” information aggregators such as Ask, FixYa, or Yahoo Answers tend to be full of sound and fury but signify nothing. For a diligent web searcher, it means “looking for the ruby underneath the rot,”[1] shoveling through the horse manure to find the pony, processing 10 tons of ore for one ounce of platinum.

Lastly, there’s what I consider the Good. This kind of website can be found at The Useless Web, an aggregator of totally useless but often downright amusing or intriguing single-service web pages written by everyone under the sun. More fun to waste your time with than watching the bread rise. An example of one which made me laugh is here. You can thank me later.

The Old Wolf has spoken.


[1] Life Is, Kander and Ebb, from “Zorba.”

Make your passwords even stronger

Back in 1998, Scott Adams did a Dilbert strip that made many IT professionals cringe in sympathy.

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As painful as this may seem, it’s one of the few times that Adams had underestimated where technology was going.

Ars Technica recently published an article entitled “Why passwords have never been weaker—and crackers have never been stronger.” I recommend it to anyone who has data on the internet that they want to keep secure. I’ve posted about passwords before, but this article explains why the urgency to use passwords that are uncrackable is even greater. It’s a technical read, but even if you don’t read it, you should be updating all your passwords.

“Newer hardware and modern techniques have also helped to contribute to the rise in password cracking. Now used increasingly for computing, graphics processors allow password-cracking programs to work thousands of times faster than they did just a decade ago on similarly priced PCs that used traditional CPUs alone. A PC running a single AMD Radeon HD7970 GPU, for instance, can try on average an astounding 8.2 billion password combinations each second, depending on the algorithm used to scramble them. Only a decade ago, such speeds were possible only when using pricey supercomputers.”

Recommendations:

  • Use a different password for each account. If one is compromised, the others remain secure.
  • Use combinations of multiple words (Seven Whipped Aardvark Quonset) which would take 27 undecillion years for a desktop PC to crack.
  • “It’s also important that a password not already be a part of the corpus of the hundreds of millions of codes already compiled in crackers’ word lists, that it be randomly generated by a computer, and that it have a minimum of nine characters to make brute-force cracks infeasible. Since it’s not uncommon for people to have dozens of accounts these days, the easiest way to put this advice into practice is to use program such as 1Password or PasswordSafe. Both apps allow users to create long, randomly generated passwords and to store them securely in a cryptographically protected file that’s unlocked with a single master password. Using a password manager to change passcodes regularly is also essential.”

The Old Wolf has spoken.