Superfluous Matter
Photos!

I've been lax in adding content to my photos page, but now I'm caught up: I just added 43 new pictures from the last two years! Enjoy!

Books - Inside VFX, by Pierre Grage

A former co-worker recommended this book to me and now that I'm directly part of the industry as an employee of ILM I figured it would behoove me to read it. The book shuns the flashy spectacle of the art and technology behind blockbuster movies and instead dives into the business side of the film industry in general and the Visual Effects (VFX) industry specifically. Although less glamorous, I still found the topic to be quite engaging and relevant as I ponder the future of my career.

It is widely acknowledged that the VFX industry is severely dysfunctional. Race-to-the-bottom bidding wars, endlessly varying government subsidies, intransigent film studios, ego-driven directors, and many other factors all contribute to enormous instability and uncertainty for VFX companies and their employees (especially the artists). Grage outlines all of these factors in the book, providing history and context by examining real world examples of famous effects-driven movies.

Although interesting and engaging the book is far from perfect. The writing is poor, the editing is poor, and as an insider I noticed multiple inaccuracies with respect to ILM and Autodesk (I can only assume that some details for other companies examined in the book were wrong too). I also took some issue with his treatment of inflation (CPI is widely accepted to underestimate inflation, but his alternative measure from SGS is generally considered to be even worse in its overestimation, and he gives it greater standing than CPI). Finally, as a book about a tech-heavy and volatile industry, it already suffers from feeling out of date despite being published in 2014.

Despite all this, I think the general picture Grage paints is still valid. The industry is severely troubled and a major shakeup is both likely and urgently needed. I also think the book finished strong, with a high-level summary of the major problems and very reasonable predictions and suggestions for the future. In particular, the emergence of "experiential" entertainment through virtual and augmented reality systems suggests pathways to diversification for VFX companies.

For anyone in the industry "Inside VFX" is definitely a worthwhile read, simply for the historical context alone. People interested in film might enjoy it too, but I can't imagine anyone else reading it to the end.

Books - The Illegal, by Lawrence Hill

I enjoyed Hill's acclaimed "The Book of Negroes" and so when my mom gave me his latest novel as a gift I was excited to read it. "The Illegal" weaves together multiple character arcs touching on marathon running, illegal immigration, policing, government corruption and journalism all set in two fictional island states located in the Indian Ocean.

The book moves along at a good pace while still providing a ton of interesting detail and back story for the characters and the fictional countries they inhabit. Hill clearly did a lot of research and the book does a good job of introducing a person to the extreme hardships that come with being "illegal." Definitely a topical story.

I enjoyed the book, but the threads of the narrative were tied up a bit too neatly for me. Everything fit together perfectly at the end giving it the feel of something that was too meticulously planned out.

Books - The Terror, by Dan Simmons

I loved visiting Canada's arctic and I thoroughly enjoyed reading two of Pierre Berton's books about early exploration of the area. So when my friend Lee told me about a fictionalized version of Sir John Franklin's final, fatal expedition for the northwest passage I knew I had to check it out.

Simmons did a ton of research, citing Berton's "Prisoners of the North" as one of his main sources. Unfortunately the novel was published before the recent discoveries of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror (2014 and 2016) but the lack of extra information on the final resting place of the ships does not diminish the story. Simmons also researched Inuit traditions and mythology to bring a supernatural element into the tale.

I enjoyed reading about the various ways the British were thoroughly unprepared for the realities of living in the far North and thoroughly unwilling to learn from the native peoples. I also enjoyed the descriptions of the ways in which Inuit thrive in the same environment. The supernatural element was strange, but grew on me towards the end of the book.

The book is long but I read it quickly, reveling in familiarity with the places, people, and situations I remembered from other readings. I'm not sure how good the book is objectively, but I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Books - Angel Catbird Volume 1, by Margaret Atwood

I love Margaret Atwood, but was not aware that she has written a graphic novel with artists Johnnie Christmas and Tamra Bonvillain. My awesome mom introduced me to it by sending me a copy of the first volume as a surprise for my upcoming birthday.

Apparently Atwood has dabbled in art and comics over the course of her career so this wasn't a total departure for her. The story itself is very tongue-in-cheek, full of bad animal puns and classic campy comic tropes. It follows the exploits of a man who discovers a formula to produce human-animal hybrids and then accidentally spills it on himself while in contact with an owl and a cat. He is transformed into a half-man half-cat with wings and feathers and is thrust into a previously unknown world of hybrids of all kinds.

I quite enjoyed it.

Europe 2016!

Sarah and I took our first major international trip together at the beginning of September, hitting five countries in two weeks. We had a fantastic time and now you can see pictures and read about it in my standard trip journal.

Books - Of Human Bondage, by W. Somerset Maugham

Regularly placed in lists of the top 100 English language novels, Of Human Bondage is also generally considered to be Maugham's best work. I bought a used copy over a year ago in my continuing quest to read more legitimate literature but just got around to reading it now.

I wish I'd read it sooner.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I found myself constantly engaged by the thoughts and actions of the protagonist Philip. The book is described as auto-biographical fiction (i.e. fiction, but based on real life) and so I assume Philip's inner monologue sounds a lot like Maugham's. I mention this because at many points I found it also sounded like mine has at various points in my life. The story and Philip resonated with me to a great extent.

Maugham wrote the first draft of the book when he was 23. It was rejected for publication and so he shelved it for fifteen years. When he returned to it he did so with the perspectives of a mature adult. As a result he was able to take the clear and accurate raw material of his younger self and polish it with the help of his years of experience.

I found the result engrossing, but I imagine that would not be the case for everyone. Some of Philip's decisions and actions can be infuriating and I would not fault anyone for losing patience with the character. To me though it all felt very realistic and believable.

Books - Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

I really love Neal Stephenson, so it is probably not saying much that I also loved his latest book. However I've spoken with some more objective people about "Seveneves" and they also agree it was excellent.

In the first chapter an unknown "agent" splits the moon into seven large pieces which remain in orbit around the earth and closely clustered together. At first all is well because the relative position and mass is mostly unchanged. But then scientists realize that the fragments will eventually start breaking each other into smaller bits which will rain down on earth and light the sky on fire (estimated to occur about two years after the initial breaking). So humanity scrambles to preserve some small amount of life in a hastily enlarged ISS orbiting earth with the hopes that someone will be able to re-colonize the planet sometime in the distant future when the bombardment has settled down.

There is a lot to love in the book, but something I'd like to call out is how gripping the early chapters were. While reading I found myself occasionally forgetting that the world wasn't actually ending and that the moon was not broken and about to rain hellfire onto the planet. I'd find myself thinking about how I would want to spend my final two years. Super powerful stuff!

Books - Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift

I picked this book up at a used book store last year as part of my continued attempt to read some of the classics. I didn't realize it at the time but it is rather old, originally published in 1726. I also did not realize that it is a colossal satire of the societies of the world, humanity, and of travel writing. I just assumed it was a story about a dude having some crazy adventures.

The dude definitely has crazy adventures, but the whole time he is also holding up a giant mirror to show all the faults of the world (of which he sees many). The satire remains remarkably engaging despite being targeted at the world as it was 300 years ago. I also thoroughly enjoyed the "travel book" aspect of the novel, despite the fact that it was written as a send-up of such books. The writing at times reminded me of Bill Bryson, whose books I quite enjoy.

Gulliver's Travels is an easy read and definitely worth the time. If you've ever thought about checking it out then I add my voice to encourage you to do so.

Books - Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller

In anticipation of the movie "Batman v Superman" I thought I'd check out the Frank Miller Batman comics on which it was loosely based. My hope was to do so before seeing the movie, but a surprise screening at work messed up my timing. Fortunately the movie was pretty bad so I dismissed it and enjoyed the comic independently.

Depictions of Batman in my lifetime have successfully recast the character and rewrote the stories as dark, violent and brooding. So it's easy to forget that when this comic came out it was a revolution from the campy, family-friendly Batman of the old TV show and comics.

The story joins a middle-aged Batman, inspired to return from retirement by increasing crime in Gotham. Since retiring public sentiment has turned against heroes and he faces opposition from police and government, including from Superman who works invisibly for the United States. It's a fun read with lots of moral ambiguity. I'll definitely check out the sequel "The Dark Knight Strikes Again" at some point.

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