Torrenting is the New Black?

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Yesterday, Netflix released the eagerly anticipated trailer for the fifth season of its original series, “Orange is the New Black.” Unfortunately for the company, almost the entire season is already available online, thanks to the work of a group of anonymous hackers by the name “thedarkoverlord,” who pulled unreleased episodes from the post-production company Larson Studios’ server in April. Since then, Refinery29 reports that summaries of ten of the thirteen episodes have appeared on the show’s Wikipedia page, making spoilers accessible even to people who do not wish to torrent the episodes.

Yet, despite thedarkoverlord’s demands for ransom payment and threats to other networks (pictured below), Wired writer Brian Barrett argues that the leak “wasn’t worth paying even one cent to prevent.” In Barrett’s eyes, there will always be people who illegally torrent shows, but Netflix has a high enough number of paying subscribers (98.75 million) to make up for that minority. Moreover, the amount of people torrenting content has dropped drastically in recent years; whereas BitTorrent “accounted for 23 percent of daily internet traffic in North America” in 2011, “that number sat at under 5 percent” in 2016.

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For me, this entire situation is fascinating on multiple levels. For one thing, the leak reflects just how much TV technology has changed, even within my own lifetime; whereas once you were at the mercy of scheduled re-runs to catch up on a missed or re-watch a beloved episode of TV, now we have the freedom to peruse seasons of our favorite series at our leisure and, in the case of the OITNB leak, sometimes even ahead of their intended release. The Internet has allowed for a sort of instant TV gratification that would otherwise not be possible. Sure, you could go out and purchase a boxed set of a specific season of television, but you would need to allot time for the season to air and then some, whereas many streaming services today release entire seasons of a show at once, as is the case with Orange is the New Black.

Yet, despite this culture of instant gratification, the amount of people torrenting content illegally is dropping. This was perhaps the most interesting part of the article for me, as a poor college student who is all too familiar with determining the most diplomatic way to ask someone for their Hulu and Prime account information. I would have thought that as average people become more internet-savvy and popular shows are spread across so many different costly platforms, more people would say, “Screw it,” and pirate films and movies from services they don’t subscribe to. This information was shocking to me, but as an aspiring television writer, I am obviously pleased. The only thing better than having a show good enough for thousands of people to pirate is having a show that’s worth paying for.

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Barrett’s article can be found at the following link: https://www.wired.com/2017/05/orange-is-the-new-black-leak/

 

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VFX Not Enough to Redeem “Ghost in the Shell”

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After months of closely following the controversy surrounding the whitewashing of the lead character, I was eager to see if Rupert Sanders’ adaptation of Ghost in the Shell would fare upon its release. I myself watched the film last week in Film Symposium, and while I was not terribly impressed by Scarlett Johansson’s performance or the thin narrative, I believed that John Dykstra’s gorgeous VFX would find a sizable audience for the film…

I was wrong. According to the linked article from Deadline, Ghost was a total flop at the box office and, according to the author’s calculations, will lose at least $60 million. The article cites poor marketing, the lack of a “hands-on executive,” the controversy surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s casting, and an “exorbitant cost” for such a niche project as reasons for the film’s failure.

All of this makes perfect sense to me, though the phrase that stood out to me the most was the author’s assertion, “You need a story to sell well beyond the visual shock and awe.” In a time where action-packed blockbusters that are devoid of strong narratives seem to thrive (see: Transformers, Suicide Squad, Fast and Furious, etc.), I would have expected exactly the opposite to be true; as much as I hate to admit it, it often seems as if the majority of domestic and international audiences prefer big explosions and other digitally-enhanced visuals to nuanced, slow-burning character development.

Of course, part of the problem with this particular story is not just that it was thin but that it was based on a manga/anime franchise that is relatively obscure in the U.S. I was very intrigued by the author’s observation that it was irresponsible of Paramount to spend so much money on a “niche IP.” Of course, visual effects only comprised a fraction of the $100 million plus cost of the film, but I was fascinated by the idea that the familiarity of source material dictates, in part, the amount and quality of VFX in a film, especially in light of last week’s in-class discussion of the relationship between technology and economy. It is mind-blowing to think that an interesting concept alone is not enough to dictate the budget of a film and, by extension, the amount spent on special effects; not only was it a bit of a risk to invest so much in a niche project like this, but this article suggests that it was downright irresponsible.

Above all, I am shocked (yet pleased) that, this time, the too-familiar problem of a white actor being cast in a non-white role weighed out the special effects work of no less than John Dykstra of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica fame. This gives me hope as both a writer and self-proclaimed activist for onscreen diversity. Despite our current political climate (ahem) or perhaps because of it, the backlash to Scarlett Johansson’s casting as a Japanese cyborg-woman helped destroy what looked and felt like a lucrative blockbuster film. This aspect of the film’s failure, too, is a fascinating example of the relationship between film technology and broader social issues such as race, gender, and class. Though, whereas we’ve previously discussed how “racist” technology can be in class (i.e. 3D glasses), this is an example of how technology failed to mask the problematic depiction of race in a contemporary blockbuster.

Overall, Ghost in the Shell might be a box office failure, but it’s a fantastic case study in the many factors that can impact a film’s success as well as film technology.

Realistic Fantasy and Fantastical Reality: Computer Generated Bodies in Game of Thrones and Westworld

Since the days of Oz and The Sopranos, HBO has had a reputation for pushing the boundaries of television. Among their most ambitious current series are Game of Thrones and Westworld, both of which visually blur the lines between traditional television and film by featuring lavish sets, real locations, and impressive special effects. Indeed, Game of Thrones set the precedent for Westworld in many ways, so it is no wonder that both shows utilize CGI to construct believable creatures— dragons and robots, respectively— to populate their intricate worlds. Thus, while the use of CGI serves different thematic purposes in Game of Thrones and Westworld, both genre shows align with HBO’s brand identity by melding the production value of blockbuster films with nuanced, cutting-edge storylines.

With serialized stories, superb performances, and high budgets and production quality, television today is more cinematic than ever before (Gorgan). The premium network HBO played a significant role in the paradigm shift in television that has occurred over the past two decades or so and has since garnered a reputation for pushing the boundaries of television. While 24 (2001-2010) and Lost (2004-2010) brought the notion of quality, highly serialized stories on broadcast networks, HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007) jumpstarted this trend and made HBO “a household name for its daring, thrilling television” (“The Evolution…”). Many noteworthy series later, HBO is known for taking creative and visual risks on its shows, investing large sums of money on unique projects (Gorgan). In an article for Vanity Fair, Emma Stefansky noted that HBO’s “prestige TV model has both made and lost the network a lot of money,” with the success of shows like The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, and Westworld balancing out the failure of Vinyl (2016) and early cancellation of Rome (2005-2007).

One of the best examples of a cutting-edge, distinctly HBO show is Game of Thrones, the network’s current flagship series. Between its myriad locations, lavish production design, and impressive special effects, Game of Thrones undeniably blurs the lines between TV and film. It is no wonder that GOT is one of the “most expensive shows ever made” (Stefansky), averaging about $10 million per episode during Season 6 (Cuccinello). Considering all its awards and premiere records, certainly GOT was worth the investment, but adapting this series to the screen was a risky endeavor. While Game of Thrones incorporated the same complex, serialized storytelling that had begun to permeate television after The Sopranos, never before had these elements appeared in a “fantasy story” set in a brutal “fictional kingdom” (Gorgan). Thankfully, the network’s investment paid off, and the series continues to take risks with each new season, introducing complex storylines like Bran’s that extend beyond the source material and incorporating visually spectacular battle sequences like the onslaught of wights at Hardhome.

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The Reed siblings fight reanimated skeletons North of the Wall.

Among the most phenomenal aspects of Game of Thrones is its use of CGI, especially as it relates to bringing the fictional creatures of Westeros to life. Indeed, Game of Thrones relies on convincing, seamless CGI to create these fantastical beings so that audiences will buy into this universe. In the words of Bustle critic Leah Thomas, “We may know that dragons, armies of skeletons, and faceless men aren’t real- but the team behind Game of Thrones makes sure nothing sticks out.” Perhaps the most iconic creatures in Game of Thrones are Daenerysdragons. The dragons must appear convincing, as they are integral to Daenerys’ storyline and character growth; Daenerys constantly interacts with her “children,” cradling them, stroking them (pictured below), and eventually riding one of them to safety. The linked clip from Pixomondo illustrates the complex combination of rendering and compositing required daenerys-and-dragonfor each dragon sequence in Season Four. Of course, Daenerys’ dragons have only grown larger and more powerful as the series has gone on, evolving from near-helpless babies to massive beasts that can roast Daenerys’ enemies and whisk her to safety.  The linked clip depicts the evolution in dragon VFX from seasons one through three. Before GOT, this level of special effects was largely relegated to blockbuster films (Gorgan); thus, the use of CGI in Game of Thrones blurs the lines between cinema and television and reflects HBO’s cutting-edge brand identity.

HBO’s new series Westworld is similar to Game of Thrones in many ways; both are grandiose genre series with sky-high budgets, lavish production values, and jaw-dropping VFX. The first season cost around $100 million to produce, and, like GOT, much of the show was shot on location in Moab, Utah, the backdrop of many classical Western movies (Fehrman). Moreover, both shows offer “copious violence and sex” and infuse the “well-worn” fantasy and Western genres with “new life” (Bady). Many critics have noted these similarities, hypothesizing that Westworld will take over Game of Thrones’ position as the flagship HBO series after the latter’s final two seasons (Bradley).

Among the most notable similarities between the two shows is the use of VFX; Westworld, too, relies on impressive CGI to create the convincing fictional creatures— here, remarkably human-like robots— to populate its world. Much as Daenerys frequently interacts with her dragons in Game of Thrones, the major human characters of Westworld frequently interact with the robot “hosts,” and the hosts interact with each other. In this way, the linked scene in which Dr. Ford converses with an outdated model, Old Bill, mirrors the scene in which Daenerys fears her own dragons for the first time. The show’s VFX supervisor Jay Worth explained that Cosa VFX, the company behind CGI in Stranger Things and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Zakarin), used “jerking, mechanical-like motion” to emphasize the imperfection of older models like Bill (Failes). With the help of effects program Nuke, the team layered simple effects to make the actor’s big gestures appear as a series of smaller movements (Zakarin).

Of course, the idea in Westworld is that the robots in the park now are practically indistinguishable from humans. When William first arrives in the park, he asks one of the hosts if she is real, only for her to respond, “Well, if you can’t tell, does it matter?” As such, CGI is typically only used to show robots malfunctioning, as with the dangerously aware Peter Abernathy and the glitching Sheriff (pictured below). sheriff-2gif.gifFor this eerie effect, the special effects team made one of the Sheriff’s eyes track the fly crawling on his face, whereas Abernathy’s malfunction in the pilot episode was mostly the actor’s performance, as the linked clip demonstrates; all the VFX team did was manipulate his pupils and eyelids slightly to make him appear slightly “off” (Zakarin) and use 2D tricks to make him start and stop as Ford instructs him to move between “builds” (Failes). The result of these special effects is that Westworld, like Game of Thrones, is far more cinematic than the average TV show. Executive producer J.J. Abrams commented on Westworld’s cinematic qualities, observing, “The production value of this thing is preposterous… But it’s HBO. That’s what they do” (Stefansky). He went on to point out that the “writers and directors wanted to maximize the sense of a cinematic experience” (Stefansky). Thus, Westworld and Game of Thrones alike fit HBO’s cutting-edge mold by pushing the boundaries of television production value.

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Yet, as much as Westworld resembles its predecessor, the use of CGI in Westworld is far more self-reflexive than in Game of Thrones. Whereas the VFX in GOT are intended to be seamless, the CGI used to bring robots to life in Westworld does the very opposite; instead of making something fictional appear realistic, Westworld digitally manipulates human performances to appear visibly unnatural. The robots appear purposefully artificial because the show thematizes human creation and raises questions about technology and voyeuristic media. Laura Bradley from Vanity Fair points out that, while “both shows feature plentiful gore and sex, Westworld has cleverly framed itself as a critique of the same sort of gratuitous moments that Game of Thrones seems to relish.” As such, the show constantly reminds audiences of its own construction, often pulling away from dramatic moments in the park to showcase the employees working behind the scenes. One such example occurs during the finale, when Dolores’ emotional death scene beside the ocean is interrupted when lights flash, the hosts freeze, and Ford steps up to accept applause for his new storyline. Likewise, VFX function in the series to create an “unnerving, unreal final product” in which “glitches, stalls,” and “inconsistent expressions” reveal “what happens when robots perfectly designed to imitate humans malfunction and artifice can no longer obstruct their nature” (Zakarin). In other words, the CGI in Westworld is intended to stand out and unnerve audiences, forcing viewers to acknowledge just how horrifying it is that humans can mimic reality and all the terrible things that could go wrong. For example, when the Sheriff glitches and his eyes start gazing in different directions in the linked scene, the audience feels as uncomfortable as the guests, and darkness lurking beneath this fantasy world reveals itself.

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Ford interrupts the emotional climax of Dolores’ storyline.

Thus, Game of Thrones and Westworld differ from one another in many ways, yet these distinctions, too, reflect HBO’s brand identity, since the network does not simply repeat its former successes. Westworld and Game of Thrones also share a great deal; both are both R-rated, high-budget genre shows with complex long-form narratives Yet, Westworld criticizes media-making itself, holding up a mirror to shows and movies like Game of Thrones that provide voyeuristic pleasure through sex, violence, and escapist fantasy. Whereas Game of Thrones was groundbreaking for bringing such high-tech visual elements to television, Westworld is innovative its self-reflexive use of complex narratives and visual splendor to critique storytelling and technology. So, while both shows boast similarly cinematic CGI, it is only logical that both shows should utilize VFX differently. After all, HBO’s brand requires that its flagship series be radically new in some respect, and both Game of Thrones and Westworld stand alone as uniquely innovative masterpieces.

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When TV Spectacle Becomes Reality

Though several long months lie between us and the seventh season of Game of Thrones, the GOT Live Concert Experience is giving fans the opportunity to relive their favorite scenes as never before. My own fangirling aside, the idea of melding television, music, and technology in this way is fascinating. For one thing, this live performance is a brilliant way to sustain the hype and generate more revenue during this especially long off-season. (Production began later than usual this year to achieve a more wintry look now that— spoiler alert— winter has finally arrived.) It translates the audience’s expectations of technical splendor by juxtaposing onscreen special effects with live lights, effects, and music. And what better way to relive the visual and auditory splendor of Game of Thrones than with live music led by the show’s composer and real life wildfire?

Yet, the most intriguing part of this production, aside from the sheer amount of machinery involved (including 807 linear feet of video wall and 255 lighting fixtures), is the fact that there even exists a television show that is technically spectacular enough to warrant this grandiose of an event. Until relatively recently, a television adaptation of a fantasy epic would never be taken this seriously, if it were even made at all. Yet, the stars seemed to have aligned just right for GOT, and it was time to incorporate the formal splendor and production value previously reserved for features films; it is undeniable that the quality of CGI and special effects in GOT was and remains revolutionary. Visually speaking, Game of Thrones is more like a 60-hour-long movie than any other major television series that came before it.

Game of Thrones is nearing its end, but its integration of CGI into a quality narrative leaves me hopeful for the future of television. If Game of Thrones could inspire such a spectacular live performance, who’s to say what live events will come out of Westworld or Stranger Things? Until then, I’ll be obsessively watching videos of the concert and begging someone to come with me.