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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Musing Pictures: Independence Day: Resurgence

Our world has changed dramatically since the original "Independence Day" (Emmerich, 1996) was released, and I couldn't help but feel those changes in this year's long-gestating sequel.

The original film hit theaters at a time when the world seemed relatively safe. There were terrible wars going on, but they seemed limited to poor, "backwards" parts of the world. The "West" was relatively tranquil, and even the Middle East (which is the West's obsession) was in the midst of an unprecedented wave of peacemaking (Israel and Jordan had just signed their peace treaty in '94). We could contemplate the end of the world without worrying that it might actually happen.

It was also a time when technology began to promise a dramatically different future. I bought my first PC in 1996, and connected to the internet for the first time. We began to see hints that the world as we knew it was about to change. No one expected buildings to blow up, but the infrastructure of civilization was shifting. In that sense, an "end" was indeed coming, but with the promise of technological re-birth soon after.

Because of that, "Independence Day" was a perfectly-timed film. It presented a metaphor for the collapse and re-birth of civilization, something we could recognize and celebrate. It was a film not about our vulnerability, but about our resilience, about our future. Since we didn't feel especially vulnerable, the message worked.

But we live in a very different world now. I remember seeing the towers fall in September 2001, and noticing (subconsciously at first) the similarity to the way buildings were destroyed in "Independence Day". That fiction could no longer function as a pure escape - it triggered too many memories.

Reality (2001)
Fiction ("Independence Day" (1996))

"Independence Day: Resurgence" attempts to avoid 9/11 imagery. The alien ships don't zap landmarks with lasers the way they did in the original film. The destruction is different, bigger. Where the original film excelled in creating powerful images of an individual building's destruction, this film fills the screen with destruction - so much of it, in fact, that there's nothing to look at any more, no central point to draw our attention, just billowing clouds of debris.

But even those billowing clouds remind me of 9/11. On-screen destruction of cities, the death of countless civilians, it still feels too real. And since we're living in times when the fear of the "alien other" plays out in our daily lives, the very nature of an alien invasion story loses some of its best escapist qualities.

Truth be told, many superhero films feature 9/11 imagery and themes: "The Avengers" (Whedon, 2012) destroys Manhattan. Billowing clouds of debris fill the streets in "Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice" (Snyder, 2016) - and in that film, the images are almost perfect re-creations of the images we remember from the news reports in 2001. It makes sense that we, as a civilization, are still grappling with, still confronting the event that changed our world. But it's hurting our escapist entertainment.


Tuesday, February 23, 2016

MaxIt Magazine Articles

It appears that the Musing Pictures articles that I wrote for MaxIt Magazine are no longer hosted on that website. If I get permission, I will re-post them here.

Musing Pictures: An American Tail (1986)

I recently re-watched one of my childhood favorites, Don Bluth's "An American Tail". The version that I saw, streamed through, was presented in a "widescreen" aspect ratio, pretty close to the 1.85:1 aspect ratio of the film's theatrical release.

It looked like this:

A screen-grab from a YouTube upload of "There are No Cats in America"

But something bothered me about the images. There were occasional moments when the shots were framed very awkwardly The above example looks fine in this aspect ratio, but consider shots like this:

Who would animate a character so close to the edge of the frame? It almost looks like part of the image is missing! Did Universal crop the image from a different aspect ratio?

Some context here:  There was a period of about fifty years when movies were made in wide aspect ratios, but televisions were square-ish (4:3, or 1.33:1). There were two ways to fit a widescreen film onto a square-ish screen. You could letterbox the image (present the entire breadth of the wide image, leaving black bars at the top and bottom of the screen), or you could "pan and scan" - only show the middle part of the frame, scanning left and right as needed to include bits of action. This second method would 'cut off' the sides of the frame. Unsophisticated movie viewers preferred pan-and-scan, as it filled their entire TV screen, whereas letterboxing left them feeling like something of the image was missing (even though, in fact, letterboxing presented the entire image!)

According to IMDb, "An American Tail" was released theatrically in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, like the images above. But the "negative ratio" (the animation itself) was 1.37:1 - a square-ish shape called Academy Ratio, very similar to the ratio of old TVs!

A little investigation led to an older YouTube upload, likely copied off of a VHS tape, or maybe from a laserdisc. It presents the same scene, but in the aspect ratio of old TVs. Here's a side-by-side comparison of the "widescreen" and "academy ratio":

It turns out that yes! "An American Tail" was animated for Academy Ratio, not for 1.85:1! Although the film was released theatrically in a wide format, it looks like the best way to see it is if you can find a version that presents it in 1.37:1, the way the film was drawn. Although I don't own the DVD, lists it as presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The Blu-Ray is presented in the 1.85:1 that we got with the streaming version.

ADDENDUM 3/14/16: I recently spoke with someone who was intimately involved in the production of "An American Tail". His recollection was that the shots were designed for a 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. He suggested that there's a possibility that the digital transfer might have been done off a 1.33:1 master (which, itself, would have been cropped from a 1.85:1 source). If this is the case, it's pretty shameful (and shouldn't be promoted as the "original" theatrical version!) He's looking into it. I'll report back here when I know more.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Musing Pictures: Edge of Tomorrow

This week, I ponder the way movies have adapted video games for the cinema screen. I am particularly intrigued by a nearly literal game-like structure in "Edge of Tomorrow", which, oddly, is not a video game adaptation.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Wednesday, May 28, 2014