What’s Extra Special About Rogue One

What’s Extra Special About Rogue One
Posted by on Apr 9, 2016
in Film Thoughts | No Comments

It’s official. We are living in an age where we get a new Star Wars movie every year. This week we got the first trailer for Rogue One, the first of three upcoming Star Wars Story Anthology films. Set to tell the story of how the rebellion got the plans for the Death Star, Rogue One will be an interesting experiment.

It does have an uphill battle. It’s a prequel of sorts that doesn’t involve any of the original cast as far as we know. Which means unlike The Force Awakens, it can’t rely very heavily on nostalgia. Not too mention it’s a break from the main story. Going back in time instead of moving forward. None of this is necessarily bad, but it is something new and different from what we’ve seen.

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What makes me most excited about Rogue One is in fact because it’s taking a break from the main episodes. Outside of the Expanded Universe, now defunct, it seems like the entire galaxy revolved around the Skywalkers and their friends. The comics and TV shows help to broaden the universe but generally, Star Wars has pretty much been the Skywalker reality show.

With Rogue One, it might be the first film where a Skywalker never appears. I say might because Darth Vader could still make a surprise appearance. Or even Princess Leia could appear at the very end to receive the plans. Rogue One will give us a chance to see what everyone else does when the Skywalkers leave the room. What’s even more exciting about this prospect is the lack of Jedi.

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Don’t get me wrong. Space wizards who wield laser swords are one of the biggest draws of Star Wars. But they are only one small sect of actual force users in the galaxy. Not too mention all the other other warrior groups out their just waiting for their time in the spotlight. That’s why Rogue One is going to be extra special. Or at least, why I hope it’s extra special. We get a chance to see a Star Wars story of the regular non-space wizard populace.

Plus, if the film does stay away from the Jedi/Sith war, we can explore the force in a new way. It’s one aspect that the movies have never explored. Sure, the Expanded Universe has given many different kinds of force users and beliefs outside of the Jedi and Sith. Even the Clone Wars animated show explored these groups, which is the only piece of EU which survived the purging. However, the films have not which is the general populaces only knowledge source for Star Wars.

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The point is, the Force is obviously not strictly good or bad. It has a dark side and a light side. But what about the space in between? Not everyone is a hero and not everyone is a villain. It’s time for those grey areas to be put in the spotlight.

Basically, while the conflict is still the Rebellion/Empire conflict from the old movies, it has opportunities to add depth to the universe. The biggest problem with purging the EU is this loss of depth. The shades of grey between the Jedi and Sith. My hope, is the characters we meet will be those shades of grey. Not all good but not all bad. Which from the trailer, looks to be the case.

What Hollywood Won’t Learn From Deadpool

What Hollywood Won’t Learn From Deadpool
Posted by on Apr 1, 2016
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Back in 2000, Artisan Entertainment made a deal with Marvel. A deal that would bring Deadpool to the big screen. For the next 16 years, Deadpool received setback after setback. Until July 2014. During Comic-con 2014, test footage for what a Deadpool movie could look like was released. The rest was history.

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As of this writing, Deadpool has made 745+ million dollars worldwide at the box office and is the 2nd highest grossing R-rated film ever. Needless to say, Deadpool is a hit. 745+ million dollars is an impressive amount of money to begin with. This is made all the more impressive when you realize the obstacles in it’s way.

First, it was made on a 58 million dollar budget. Which is basically pocket change compared to most superhero films, including solo-hero films. Second, it’s rated R. Since R films have a smaller audience to draw from, they just don’t have the potential profit pools other films do. Third and final, the character itself is both relatively unheard of by larger audiences and deeply loved by comic book fans everywhere.

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These three things that stood in it’s way, are also the things that made it successful in truth. Coincidentally, they are also the things that Hollywood will get wrong. Superhero movies these days are made with huge budgets. Ant-man the previous solo-entry for superhero had a 130 million dollar budget. Iron-man was made with a 140 million dollar budget. Man of Steel had a 225 million dollar budget. This doesn’t even account the big team up films which are at least 220 million dollars, if not potentially double that.

It’s pretty easy to see why a small budget could hamper a film. For Deadpool, I believe it helped. The last time Deadpool showed up in a film, he was outright hated by fans. So this time around it was important they got the core/heart of the character right. If they had a bigger budget, the filmmakers could have gotten away with a weaker script. Hell, the last Transformers movie made over a billion dollars. Which I think we can all agree had a pretty weak script. It’s already a proven fact that explosions are universal. No translation required. Hence, a bigger international audience to pool from.

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However, since the Deadpool crew had a smaller budget, they needed a good script. They needed the humor to be right, the story to make sense, and to make the right people happy. The fact they were able to go R-rated let them make Deadpool right. He’s a violent mercenary who is called the merc with the mouth that’s constantly running. While you could do a PG-13 version, like many upset parents wanted, it simply would not be as good. It might still be kind of chuckle funny but again, since you’re already dealing with a smaller budget you need every advantage you can get.

One advantage, and arguably the biggest, is the fans. If your word-of-mouth is negative, people won’t go see your movie. I know, ground-breaking, right? So now, you have to please a fanbase that is known to be pretty picky about their superhero flicks and, are still cautious after the last time they saw a movie version of Deadpool. Thankfully, the team behind Deadpool pulled it off. They made an original movie for the fans of the character. This, right here, is what Hollywood is going to get wrong.

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Hollywood exec’s will look at Deadpool‘s success and try to copy it. In fact, it’s already started. Batman v Superman will have an R-rated directors cut. Wolverine 3 is rumored to now be R-rated and who know’s what else we’ll see pop-up. What Hollywood is missing is the fact Deadpool was made for Deadpool fans. They had an impressive understanding of why people like Deadpool and then made that movie. They didn’t try to alter Deadpool audiences, nor tone it down, or simplify the humor. No, the filmmakers made a Deadpool movie for Deadpool fans. It just so happens the best version of Deadpool is a R-rated films.

Since Deadpool was so faithful to it’s fanbase, Deadpool was then carried and supported by it. Since the fans loved it so much, they went at told their non/semi-fan friends. After seeing it, they recognized how different and just all around good the movie was and then told their friends. Thus the circle continues. What Deadpool ultimately teaches us is that movies can’t be made on an assembly line. Well, technically movies could, they’re just generally not going to be very good.

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Instead of studios making films that have the fans in mind. We will get a few Deadpool copycats with other films simply changing beloved characters or properties to fit a broader, more general audience. This also doesn’t take into account the amazingly on-point marketing strategy Deadpool had.

What American Animation Has Lost

What American Animation Has Lost
Posted by on Feb 22, 2016
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American animation has lost something. While not detrimentally important, if not addressed at the studio level it could vastly narrow the variety of content. American animation has lost it’s sense of artistic aesthetic. To be clear I don’t believe this is something exclusive to American animation. It’s more of a large studio problem. America just happens to have a lot of big animation studios.

This loss of aesthetic largely came about with rise in CG animation. However, it’s not restricted to this type of animation. Let’s back up for a second and let me explain exactly what I’m talking about.

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What sets animation apart from live-action more than anything is that everything is hand-crafted for that film. From the landscapes to the faces on the characters. While live-action still has visual development (costumes, sets, etc). Production is still largely restricted by making it look as realistic as possible. Even when you look at films that are grounded in fantasy (Pan’s Labrynth, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars) you’re still held back by realism.

Not too say that this bad. In fact, it is down right amazing when you are able to create a world that looks real no matter how ridiculous it might actually be. However, when you no longer have to hold to reality there are some interesting directions you can take.

When you have absolute control over the medium you can make your world more accurately represent the story. The most recent best example does actually come from 3D. Mostly in the form of the design of the emotions from Inside Out. For the most part, each character was designed to reflect their personality. Sadness small, blue, and modeled after a tear drop. Anger was red, blocky, and rigid. Fear was all squiggly, bent out of shape, and all around spastic. So on and so forth.

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Joy, Sadness, and Disgust could have been modeled more distinctly but that get’s into a much different discussion about diversity and women in the industry. The point is, the characters were able to be shaped to their personalities. This doesn’t even take into account the design of the rest of a films world. However, this is restricted to Riley’s mind world. The outside has to reflect reality as closely as possible. This isn’t necessarily case for every 3D film but it’s quickly becoming the trend.

Another example from 2D animation would be Atlantis: The Lost Empire. When your in the surface world, you have a lot of hard edges. Lots of squares and triangles. In many ways, it mirrors rigidness of Milo’s world. One where everything is straightforward and defined. Thus no room for his fantastical voyage to a lost city. Plus, the surface world is cloaked in darker hues further adding to the depressing tone. Sure, it may look like our world but the artist’s were obviously not going for photo-realism.atlantis-the-lost-empire-19

Now when Milo first enters Atlantis, we get much brighter hues and less rigid shapes. Thus marking the joy Milo initially finds and signifying his crossing of the threshold. These sorts of design choices in animation can add an unconscious depth for the audience. A layer that helps suck the audience in even more.

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So what does this all mean? Well like I said earlier, this isn’t necessarily just an America problem. It’s more of a problem with big animation studios. Looking at Studio Ghibli films, they tend to all have similar design aesthetics as well. This basically means that when a studio gets big enough, design becomes a branding issue. When your films at least look similar, it’s easier for the audience to recognize a studios work. Since it becomes about branding, it basically means your films are easier to sell.

In much the same way certain directors can have their own distinct, recognizable styles (Zach Snyder, Quentin Tarantino) so can studios. Why is this a problem? Simply put, the art of the medium gets pushed aside in favor of money. You can’t really fault anyone for this because after all, it gets movies made.

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The real question is how can we we have both? A money making movie that still has a more unique look and feel. Maybe we can’t but, no matter what, it won’t happen until technology get’s a little further. What makes different styles easier in 2D rather than 3D is because there is no barrier. None. As a 2D artist, you take what’s in your mind and put it on paper. It’s literally that simple. The only thing standing in your way is your own artistic ability.

When it comes to 3D, you’re blocked by the level of technology and your own personal experience of the technology. Take hair for example. Hair is incredibly hard for 3D since you’re basically trying to animate millions if not billions of individual objects. That puts a tremendous strain on the computer and software. With 2D, you can get away with treating hair as one object. If you do that with 3D, you basically get a beanbag chair strapped to somebodies head.

So, what is the solution here? Frankly, there isn’t one. A reason, I suspect at least, why 3D has lost it’s distinct design aesthetics is because it’s more expensive. For 2D, you can change aesthetics on the fly. For 3D, there are a lot more steps between initial idea and final product. Plus, if you want to switch styles half way through, you pretty much need to start from scratch.

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Until technology get’s more advanced where the barrier between artist and 3D gets thinner, we’re stuck. The best thing to do now is to enjoy the films being made and continually come up with ideas that push the technology.

My Year of Disney

My Year of Disney
Posted by on Feb 9, 2016
in Film Thoughts | No Comments

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In 2015 I made a very simple New Year’s Resolution. To watch every single Disney animated feature film in chronological order. That’s 54 films starting at Snow White and ending with Big Hero 6. Now if I had been a little stricter it would have been nearly one movie a week. This did not happen. In the end I ended up having more than a few double features.

The reason why I did this comes in two. Disney is by far one of the most influential studios in Hollywood, especially when it comes to animation. Not only that but Disney now serves as an umbrella that covers multiple different empires including and beyond Hollywood. So, I wanted to see just how far Disney has come with the films that got it all started.

Secondly, these films are a part of not only my own childhood but our cultures “childhood” at large. Some of these films I hadn’t seen in years and I wanted to see how well they still hold up. The short answer, you’d be surprised.

I’ll take you on my journey and the observations I made as I relived a vital part of my childhood. I’ll be separating the Disney filmography with my own divisions and disregarding other divisions such as The Golden Age.

 

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The first section is what I’d like to call The Storybook Period. With Snow White (1937) on one end and Sleeping Beauty (1959) on the other. My reasoning comes from both the types of stories being told as well as the animation style. The stories were that of fairy tales, children’s books, and brightly colored musicals. The animation style was very bright and clean. Smooth edges and simple color palettes were everywhere.

What really stuck out to me is just how poorly these films had aged. Sure, they might still be classics but classics from a different era. This mostly comes in with its jarring and clear pictures of racism. The crows from Dumbo, “Why is the Red Man Red” song from Peter Pan, and the now missing black centaur from Fantasia. It’s these moments that really make you take a step back and you realize just how much things have changed. This would best be demonstrated in Song of the South which is the only film I was not able to watch since Disney has done it’s best to strike it from the planet. It’s that bad.

A big reason I call this The Storybook Period, largely has to do with the story style. The stories are simple and often of the more fairy tale variety. You have a villain and a hero with very little motivation for either to be so. Not only that but these stories generally don’t reflect our world much at all and end up being pretty hard to relate to.

Beyond the simple story structure, racist overtones, and animation style, this era does happen to be a great era for experimentation. Walt Disney began the tradition of experimenting with different styles and techniques to achieve different effects in his films. A tradition very much alive today, now with more computers and fancy programs.

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This idea of pushing and trying new things is probably best encapsulated by Fantasia and the series of musicals in this era (The Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time). If you don’t remember any of those four films, I wouldn’t blame you. They’re basically just a series of shorts or musical numbers that aren’t really connected, with the exception of The Three Caballeros. Watching these films, it definitely seems like they were trying different things and seeing what worked. Each film had different animation styles, aesthetics, and even effects. Each one was like a petri dish of animation to see what works.

If I were to choose two films that encapsulated this era, it would be Dumbo and FantasiaFantasia while kind of hard to get through, has some truly great set pieces that have, at the time, ground breaking effects. Dumbo, out of all these films, still holds up pretty well. Besides the crows of course. The animation style reflects the majority of the other films and the story itself has some emotional hills and valleys equivalent with today’s films. I still haven’t fully recovered from the scene of Dumbo’s mom cradling Dumbo through the bars of her cage.

I also want to take a moment and give a shout out to Timothy Q. Mouse from Dumbo, a better Jiminy Cricket then the bug himself. Timothy actually sets out to help Dumbo purely out of compassion and never abandon’s him. He’s a true friend and mentor to Dumbo who is a special addition to the film. I would even go as far to say he might be the best Disney sidekick. Period.

 

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This next grouping of films is what I like to call Disney’s Blue Period. The reasoning here is that the films from One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) to Oliver & Company (1988) are on average darker than what we’ve seen previously. This is seen in the same two aspects from the Storybook Period, animation aesthetic and story. Previously every film had bright colors, clean edges, dealt with fantasy, and were all around just brighter. Now we had much darker color palettes at play with rougher, almost sketch-like quality lines, and we largely step out of fantasy and into the real world.

Starting with the animation style, things had a very different and distinct aesthetic. While before Disney pursued realism, even tracing over live-action models, Disney films now developed their own unique aesthetics. However, just about each film had a distinct roughness to it. As if they didn’t go through the standard clean-up process and instead skipped it. In reality, Sleeping Beauty has a very similar aesthetic. I don’t include it the Blue Period because it’s story structure and elements resemble more closely those of the Storybook Period.

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In the Blue Period, the stories took a very real turn. We no longer had evil step-mothers and witches as our enemies. Instead we saw fashion moguls (One Hundred and One Dalmatians), spurned butlers (The Aristocats), trigger happy neighbors (The Fox and the Hound), and kidnapping treasure hunters (The Rescuers).  We still had our trips into fantasy (The Sword in the Stone, Robin Hood, The Black Cauldron) but largely we were in a world that was more similar to our own.

The point I’m attempting to make is we started to see more villains and stories more relatable than a fairy tale. We’ve all had that boss we thought was the devil, the angry neighbor, or heard stories on the news about mobsters and kidnappers. These were villains from our world recreated as cartoon caricatures. What also needs to be recognized in this period is some of the most hear-wrenching losses in all of animation. Whether it’s The Fox and the Hound or The Black Cauldron, we began to see true loss. Not the falling under a sleeping spell kind. The kind where characters sacrifice themselves for their friends to demonstrate the purest form of love.

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This was my biggest takeaway from this period. We saw beloved characters give-up their life for their friends. While they always come back in the end, it’s never presented that way. It’s always a final sacrifice. For me, the two most hear-wrenching sacrifices are Baloo (The Jungle Book) and Gurgi (The Black Cauldron). It’s a combination of their willingness to die in the aid of their friends and how these scenes were drawn. When you watch them again you forget for a second that this is supposed to be for children. This idea of loss isn’t only relegated to life. It could be a friendship (The Fox and the Hound) or the characters own personal safety (The Rescuers). Loss is a big idea in this period that’s put front center.

One more thought, I’m not sure where The Black Cauldron came from. Sure it’s a pretty prolific book but it is vastly different from anything Disney has done or will probably ever do. It can best be represented by the films villain. An undead sorcerer with an army of demons who is attempting to raise an army of the undead to enslave the world. Who also happens to be voiced by John Hurt.

 

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Now we enter into what’s most commonly referred to as the Disney Renaissance period. I like to call it the Glen Keane Period. This period includes every film from The Little Mermaid (1989) to Tarzan (1999). I call it the Glen Keane Period because Glen Keane was one of the head animators at the time and heavily influenced the designs of the characters from this period. This style is a big part of what sets this period apart.

During this time we get a throwback to the Storybook period. We return to the realm of fantasy stories of princes and princesses. However, these story structures are also applied to different kinds of settings and characters. During this period we go to Africa, France, Australia, China, and oh so many more. It also is a switch to have the princesses to have a little more agency in their own stories. The most notable would be Mulan, who pretends to be a man to save her father and ends up saving China. There is a little more to the story but if you need to be filled in, do yourself a favor and watch the movie.

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What’s also important to note is the music during this period. In fact, this is probably the most notable aspect of this period. Music had always been a big part of Disney movies but here, each movie gained its own unique musical style and Disney solidified a winning strategy for a solid decade. Personally, I think the music of this period can best be exemplified by Hercules (1997). I am a little bias seeing as it is my favorite Disney film. However, putting that aside, I still think Hercules makes a strong case.

You have a distinct gospel style which sets apart each song. Not only that but this culture clash between gospel and ancient Greece helps to set the film apart as a whole. Like most other films in this period each informs the audience and propels the plot. This interaction between music and story is more direct than has previously been seen in past movies. In the past, we’d get some song that while captured the mood didn’t have much to do with the actual story. Or it would be a short little musical stanza rather than a full blown musical number.

I also need to mention that I almost called this set the Villain’s Period. After all, in each movie we were given a clear villain that had reasons for their villainy besides just being arbitrarily evil. What’s especially entertaining, is as you get older these villains actually gain more depth. Scar from Lion King (1994) was second his entire life and wanted to be king. Ursula from The Little Mermaid was obviously banished by Triton for some unknown reason and seeks her revenge. Gaston from Beauty and the Beast (1991) while superficially shallow also shows the importance of standing up and speaking the truth in the face of false accusation.

Not too mention each villain got their own songs. Each of which are some of the best out of each film. This focus on more complex villains lays the groundwork for the current period we’re in. However, we need to drudge through some mud first before the final period.

 

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This next period is hard to classify. While at the time, it seemed Disney was on a downhill spiral after massive success in the 90’s. Consequently, this is right when Pixar was soaring with hit after hit. The reason this period is hard to classify is while it was largely a financial failure, creatively they had some of their most unique ideas. Many of which are still fondly remembered and have aged extremely well. That’s why I call this period the Meh Period. Including everything from Fantasia 2000 (2000) to Meet the Robinsons (2007). While there are a few gems, no film was as successful compared to their 90’s predecessor’s.

First, I want clarify what I mean by financial failure. Most films in this period made at least 250 million at the box office. At first it doesn’t seem too bad. However, when you look a little closer things get interesting. Let’s take the best from the Meh Period and the worst from the Glen Keane Period. Dinosaur made 349 million at the box office on a 127.5 million dollar budgetHercules made 252 million on an 85 million dollar budget. A small note, I used the best and worst that also had info about their production budgets. Not taking into account marketing costs which can get pretty steep, Dinosaur made a total of 221.5 million while Hercules made 167 million. That’s a margin of 54.5 million. The best Disney could do during the Meh Period was only 54.5 million more than the worst from the Glen Keane Period.

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Trust me it only gets worse when you look at how well every other film did in the Glen Keane Period. There are a couple reasons why I believe this was a dark period for Disney Animation. First and foremost, Disney as a company was in a painful transition. There were a lot of internal power struggles occurring mostly involving Michael Eisner, the predecessor to Bob Iger the current CEO. These struggles had ripple effects that affected the company as a whole. If you want more information I’d suggest reading Disney War. On top of these internal struggles, Disney Animation made an abrupt departure from their musical centric stories and transitioned hard into more action-adventure fare. Plus, they had some growing pains when transitioning to CGI.

All in all, things were a mess. Their cookie cutter formula got turned on its head and it didn’t look like things were going to turn around. That is until Disney bought Pixar. Up until this point, Disney was the distributor for Pixar. Pixar had been owned largely by Steve Jobs and he was the one that made sure when Disney bought Pixar, Disney laid down some serious cash. At 7.4 billion dollars, Bob Iger was able to acquire Pixar. That’s nearly as much as they paid for Marvel and Lucasfilm combined.

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Like I said, this period is all over the place. At best, you’ll have a film you remember being much better watching as a kid. The three exceptions to the rule I would say are Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), Lilo & Stitch (2002), and Treasure Planet (2002). An argument could be made for The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) since it’s easily the funniest movie in the period and many others. However, it’s just not quite as emotionally deep as the other three.

These three highlights hold-up extremely well and are nearly as good as I remember them. They blend humor, action, and genuine emotion effortlessly. I would also nominate any three of these as Disney’s next live-action adaptations. It’s also important to note that the voice cast for Treasure Planet and Atlantis is made up of some of the most popular actors that have surged in popularity since then.

I would say the best of this period is Lilo & Stitch. From it’s portrayal of it’s sister leads to the true emotional weight that the films story has. It could easily hold its own with today’s animated films with just a few tweaks here and there.

 

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This Pixar acquisition in 2006 kickstarts our next period, and we’ll call it just that. The Pixar Period starts with Bolt (2008) and goes through till today. A couple things happened when Pixar officially became a part of the Disney family. The first was John Lasseter and Ed Catmull became heads of Disney Animation as well as Pixar. In 2006, Disney was still early in their development of Bolt. As the story goes, they ended up doing a lot of story reworking and organization restructuring. Which apparently did the trick. While Bolt wasn’t a resound success it didn’t do half bad at the box office and scored pretty well with critics. Then we got Tangled (2010). A throwback to the Glen Keane Period if there was one and the first huge success at the box office. After that it’s been hit, after hit, after hit.

In many ways, the defining features of this period are still being defined. What is definitely most evident, is the villains are now more complicated and traditional conventions are being flipped. You don’t have to look further than Frozen (2014) or Big Hero 6 (2104) to see that. Since these features are still being developed, let me tell you what I hope to see.

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I want villains that are empathetic. Take Robert Callaghan, the villain of Big Hero 6. After losing his daughter to an experiment gone wrong, Callaghan sets out to make the ones responsible pay. Frankly, Callaghan is almost a hero instead of a villain. The only reason he lands on the villain side of the line is because he is willing to endanger innocent people to get his revenge. If I had it my way, we would be able to not only clearly understand the villains motivations but even empathize with them.

Disney needs to go where it hasn’t gone before. Largely when Disney does a fairy tale musical, which is easily their staple film, they tend to go for germanic or euro-centric  fairy tales. There’s a whole world out there filled with vibrant cultures who each have their own stories. By exploring those stories not only do they go into uncharted territory but they help to solve the diversity problem currently taking up headlines in Hollywood. And if Moana (2016) is any indication, we will be getting plenty more.

Lastly, I want Disney to do more sci-fi/action-adventure. They’ve already been exploring that with Wreck-it Ralph (2012) and Big Hero 6 (2014). But I want them to explore it even more and put out movies like Treasure Planet (2002) and Atlantis (2001). Sure, these may not have been their biggest successes but they are some of the most rich worlds they have ever made. I’ve written before about how Pixar aren’t the best world builders, but maybe with Disney they could come up with something really special.

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Congratulations! You read through this incredibly long post that has little impact on the world! In all seriousness though, this was a very interesting experience. By watching all these movies in chronological order, you can clearly see the development. Where they tried new things, where those things failed, and where they succeeded. I liked it so much I decided to do something similar this year.

Instead of Disney I will be going through the filmographies of Studio Ghibli and Pixar. That’s just over 30 films and they are two of most influential animation studios in the world. So, I’d like to see what they’ve got. Until next time!

Optimistic Sci-fi

Optimistic Sci-fi
Posted by on Jan 15, 2016
in Film Thoughts | No Comments

The screen opens to a desolate wasteland. Remnants of some great city can be seen in the background. Humanity is all but extinct with only a few bands of  wandering humans scavenging the wasteland. If you’ve paid the smallest amount of attention to Hollywood, you may have noticed a trend in sci-fi. To blow-up the world and show what happens after.

Whether it’s in the form of a YA dystopian society (The Hunger Games, Divergent), dystopian sci-fi with humanity fighting a never-ending war against some threat (Terminator: Genisys, Oblivion), or a nuclear/environmental fallout (The Book of Eli, Mad Max: Fury Road). Right now, the popular thing to do is blow-up the world and see what happens. There are many theories you could come up with about why this is so. That’s not why we’re here today. I want to go in the other direction.

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These dystopian sci-fi films like to put the protagonists in a world where humanity already lost. To showcase the struggle of living in a world that’s harsher and more savage than our own. At the same time, it showcases the inevitability that our world is going to die. At some point, Hollywood got very depressing about humanities future. So what happens when we aren’t?

You get films like Tomorrowland and The Martian. One was a flop while the other is one of the biggest films of 2015. Let’s start with the flop. Tomorrowland had plenty of issues. These mostly revolved around the narrative and the often conflicting dialogue structure. However, while the ending could have been reworked to be less sappy, it gave us hope. It aimed, somewhat ambitiously, to demonstrate the power that one person has to change the world. Echoing many of the same sentiments that today’s scientist (see Neil Degrasse Tyson) tell the scientist’s of tomorrow.

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Honestly, Tomorrowland works far better as an animated film in my opinion. It targets a broader younger audience that is quickly showing that positivity is the way to go. An audience that grew up during the golden age of animation plus the families that have young children that enjoy animation would be far more receptive.

The Martian has a different approach when it comes to optimism. Set in the near future (2035 or 2047) where the world is not only still in one piece but we have reignited our journey to the stars. Here you have one man stuck on Mars whose only goal is to survive. What is so engaging about this film is the display of the indomitable human spirit. Sure, there low times in the film where Mark Watney, our protagonist, hits more than a few setbacks. Things explode, fail to work, and just plain go wrong. However, he and NASA never give up.

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Here again, you have a future where humanity isn’t on the way out but thriving. A story where humanity comes together for the greater good. Not only that but The Martian is more science than fiction. Any problem is solved with scientific know-how and the resources available. Where most movies might create some nifty plot-device to solve a problem, the characters are forced to use the resources they have available to them that would most likely actually be available on a similar Mars mission.

What I’m getting at is there is a place for the optimistic sci-fi drama. Where humanity is able to avert whatever disaster is looming regardless how big or small. An important distinction I want to make between this and say your superhero or run of the mill action adventure is the basis in science. You have regular people who have struggled and put in the time to learn something that inevitably saves themselves or even the world. It is much more of an earned victory.

Is this the beginning of a new trend for sci-fi? Maybe. I sure hope it is and look forward to more.

Reboots, Remakes, and Sequels

Reboots, Remakes, and Sequels
Posted by on Nov 13, 2015
in Film Thoughts | No Comments

If you’ve been keeping up with the current trends of Hollywood, you might notice something alarming. The fact that the summer movie line-up might look eerily familiar to years past. Just this year we had Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, Terminator: Genisys, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Furious 7, and more that I’d rather not take the time to list. It’s been an increasing trend in Hollywood to simply update a film rather than start something new. Now first and foremost this isn’t a bad thing, however if the current strategy continues it won’t be sustained.

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Now, the simple explanation for this recent trend is because studios like to make money. SURPRISE! This simple idea is largely why we have so many re-do’s. Why spend the money and take the risk on an untried property when there is a host of great franchises that have already proved to be money-makers? That’s just smart business. The problem that occurs is when they rely too heavily on audience nostalgia. That the fond feelings audiences have give studios the excuse to scoot by with either a reused or rehashed plot. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t work. Especially when studios decide to tweak the original stories. All that built up nostalgia can quickly turn the audience against the studios.

Let’s look at Jurassic World and Mad Max: Fury Road. These two films are easily the two big budget standouts of the summer. Jurassic World made all the money there was while Mad Max preceded to take people by their ears and drag them along on a thrill ride that has redefined the very word. Why did these two films work? Jurassic World had essentially the same plot as Jurassic Park just with more dinosaurs and more people. While Mad Max‘s plot was simply a more violent depiction of your parents turning the car around on the family road trip. The reason why both these films worked so well is they knew who they were making them for.

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Jurassic World being the lesser of the two, had it easier. Everyone loves dinosaurs and as long as the dinosaurs looked good enough, people won’t grumble to much. That’s part of what made Jurassic Park so great. It made us believe Steven Spielberg had made some demonic pact to bring dinosaurs back from extinction so he could make a movie. Not only that, but Speilberg put those dinosaurs at the top of the food chain and made humans the prey. Making us irrationally fear Raptors bursting into our kitchens. Ultimately Jurassic World relied on including more dinosaurs and having them fight. Going for more spectacle rather than suspense. With characters just deep enough to make us care about them over the dinosaurs, the movie came out with a pretty positive result.

mad_max_fury_road_wallpaper_1920x1080_by_sachso74-d8r49tiMad Max was a completely different story. Cracked.com does a much better job at praising Mad Max: Fury Road, which you can read on their site. The basic thing I want to get across is that Mad Max was made to a specific audience. It didn’t try to water anything down to make it PG-13, thus hitting a bigger market. Unlike Terminator: Genysis, Mad Max knew that their loudest audience members are old enough to see an R-rated film and made a film for them. Which is how we got the masterpiece that is Mad Max: Fury Road.

This all boils down to one thing, know your audience. If you are going to make a sequel or a reboot, know who loved the original and why. It’s partly why there is so much excitement around the the new Star Wars. If you read any of the hundreds of hype articles out there you’ll see that J.J. Abrams has an understanding of why people loved the originals and built of off them. It also helps that while making his second Star Trek film he went on record of being more of a Star Wars fan.

Damn it Pixar: An Inside Out Review

Damn it Pixar: An Inside Out Review
Posted by on Jun 26, 2015
in Movie Reviews | One Comment

At this point in time Inside Out has received critical praise since before its premiere and has already smashed the record for an original opening weekend. This is for a good reason. Inside Out is everything we love about Pixar in one film. Creative ideas, new perspectives, memorable characters, and most importantly the emotional impact of a world shattering meteor.

As I watched Inside Out I was continually emotionally punched in the gut. Hence the “damn it Pixar” in the title. After all, I can only cry so many times in a film. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s first start with the cast assembled for this film. While there are numerous notable actors lending their voices, I’m going to focus on the five emotions. With comedy veterans Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kaling, you can’t really go wrong. Surprisingly, the film doesn’t seem to coast on the talent of its stars and is instead elevated to higher plain.

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Amy Poehler channels more than a little bit of Leslie Knope (Parks and Rec) for Joy. Phyllis Smith absolutely nails Sadness and also seems to channel some of her character from The Office. Bill Hader plays Fear who could easily be replaced by Flint from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Mindy Kaling as Disgust is divinely inspired casting and a summation of all the cool people we’ll never be. Finally, Lewis Black as Anger is just about as perfect casting as you can get. With a solid voice ensemble, this film is definitely putting the right foot forward.

Beyond the voice cast, we need to talk about the story. Following the emotions of Riley, a girl moving with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco. Struggling with leaving her friends and old life behind, she is forced to adjust to a brand new life. Of course this is an emotional time and sends Riley’s five emotions into turmoil. This is a story that everyone can relate to. Whether it was a move or some other life changing event that occurred when you were a child, everyone can think of something.

Fear (voice of Bill Hader), Sadness (voice of Phyllis Smith), Joy (voice of Amy Poehler), Disgust (voice of Mindy Kaling) and Anger (voice of Lewis Black) guide 11-year-old Riley from Headquarters, the control center inside her mind. Directed by Pete Docter (“Monsters, Inc.,” “Up”), Disney•Pixar's "Inside Out" opens in theaters nationwide June 19, 2015. ©2014 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Fear (voice of Bill Hader), Sadness (voice of Phyllis Smith), Joy (voice of Amy Poehler), Disgust (voice of Mindy Kaling) and Anger (voice of Lewis Black) guide 11-year-old Riley from Headquarters, the control center inside her mind. Directed by Pete Docter (“Monsters, Inc.,” “Up”), Disney•Pixar’s “Inside Out” opens in theaters nationwide June 19, 2015. ©2014 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Through this story, which takes about two or three days, we learn the importance of each emotion. Fear keeps us safe from dangerous situations. Disgust helps to ensure are social survival. Anger helps us to stand up for ourselves. Joy steers us towards what makes us ultimately happy. Sadness helps us understand pain and how to ultimately process it. These are slight simplifications but I only want to delve deeper into the two central emotions of this film, Joy and Sadness.

From the get go, Joy acts as the leader of the group. After all, if we asked what was the most important emotion, how many people would say happiness or joy? What Inside Out does so brilliantly well is accurately depict the importance of all emotions to our development, including sadness. They accomplish this most effectively by having two worlds. The outside normal world and the one where Riley’s emotions are. This create a unique cause and effect relationship that helps to showcase why Riley acts the way she does.

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It is done so well that you will not be able to stop yourself from empathizing with Riley. From my own personal experience, I could see myself when I was kid acting out in the same ways. The pain and confusion felt by Riley was very real to me. This emotional conflict drives the narrative and leads to some of the most heartbreaking and heartwarming moments in Pixar’s history.

All of this to say, I do not think that Inside Out is Pixar’s best film. It is definitely in my top 5 but not the best. Not for any one big reason but more just little things that subtracted a few points here and there. Really though, it’s apples and orange. Inside Out has earned a spot in Pixar’s greatest hits and has helped bring Pixar out of a creative slump. Not too bad after a two year absence from the box office.

Why I’m Worried About The Good Dinosaur

Why I’m Worried About The Good Dinosaur
Posted by on Jun 18, 2015
in Film Thoughts | No Comments

I’m going to just state the obvious here, dinosaurs are awesome. If there is one fact that is the most universally accepted, it’s this one. If you weren’t aware, we recently got to revisit Jurassic Park as Jurassic World. It has smashed box office records and continues to rise. I don’t want to talk about that film. Instead I want to talk about Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur. Pixar’s own film of Jurassic proportions.

Pixar’s upcoming film is already getting rave reviews and is even being touted as one of their best yet. However, it’s not the only Pixar film this year. The Good Dinosaur tells the tale of what the world would look like if the dinosaurs didn’t go extinct. Not a bad premise and full of possibilities. Yet, with the first trailer I have my concerns. I’m not going to go into the multiple issues happening behind the scenes because we might frankly never know. Instead, it’s the premise that has me worried. I’ve talked before about what I think is the difference between telling a story and creating a world. Specifically how Dreamworks best work happens when they create worlds and Pixar’s is when they tell stories. So far, TGD seems to be a perfect example of why Pixar is bad at creating worlds.

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As I’ve said before, the easiest way to create a world is to simply ask a question. In this case, it’s what if the dinosaurs didn’t go extinct. What would the world look like then? The short teaser trailer gives us just one or two glimpses of this. A T Rex running with buffalo and an Apatosaurus being ridden by a human. This isn’t a bad idea at all, the problem I have is that Pixar isn’t the right studio for the film.

Lets take a look at some of Pixar’s greatest hits. Films like Finding Nemo, A Bug’s Life, Wall-E, UP, The Incredibles, Monsters Inc., and the entire Toy Story trilogy. What’s pretty much the only thing consistent about these films? They all take place in a world very familiar to ours. The only two slight exceptions I would consider would be Monsters Inc. and Wall-E. However, both are still in worlds immediately recognizable to our own. Monsters Inc. just substitutes monsters for people and Wall-E just speeds up the clock. The point is, all of these films occur in our world. It’s pretty much why the Pixar theory is even able to somewhat make sense. I know I didn’t list all the films but take any Pixar film and this idea applies.

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Do you know which two films are considered the worst two Pixar films? Cars and Cars 2. What would you say is different about these 2? They were both directed by John Lasseter who directed Toy Story 1 and 2. They both had a pretty awesome voice cast and honestly had a pretty cool world around them. So why did they fall apart? There could be any number of behind the scenes reasons but my theory is that Pixar built a world instead of telling a story. The difference between interpreting the world through a different perspective and creating a world based on a perspective.

When you create a world, like in Cars, you lose that perspective. Toy Story is from the perspective of our toys and taking a look at growing up. Monster Inc. is from the monsters in our closet and that the things we fear aren’t all that scary. Finding Nemo shows how our personal actions could have unforeseen consequences and the importance of family and friends. Cars is about what the world would look like if cars were the dominant species. Do you see how that kind of falls flat? Sure, there’s an underlying message about what true success looks like but it gets lost by the need to show how this world looks and functions.

So far, TGD looks to show us what the world would look like if the dinosaurs were the dominant species. See why I’m having some concerns about TGD? Now, it is still far to early to pass judgement. Frankly, it’s a safer bet to just assume Pixar will be able to pull it off. It just looks like their going to fall into some old pitfalls. To Pixar’s credit, it does look like they are trying to avoid another Cars.

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It doesn’t appear that the dinosaurs have built anything like our own human world. If they stick within the boundaries of a world we already know, then I think TGD has a good chance. Not only that but if they inject TGD with the signature Pixar emotional weight, it’ll be fine. This was part of the problem after all with Cars, Cars 2, and Monsters University. There wasn’t much if any high emotional stakes that usually helps Pixar films to transcend both child and grown-up audience.

All this to say, I’ll still be giving Pixar my money at the end of the day. But if the next TGD trailer shows dinosaurs riding buses, I’ll be very worried.

Ex Machina: The Only AI You’ll Need

Ex Machina: The Only AI You’ll Need
Posted by on May 28, 2015
in Movie Reviews | No Comments

This review is a little behind the times but that’s life for ya. I had the extreme pleasure of going to see Ex Machina when it released just about a month ago. To say that I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement.

Let’s start with the actors. With three main leads in Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander everyone was on point. Domhnall Gleeson (Caleb) continues to show that he is a rising star. We’ll see him later this year in The Force Awakens but in just about every role that he’s come into, he has fully enveloped it. This time is no different. Playing opposite him is Oscar Isaac (Nathan) who has been making waves himself. To put it bluntly, the moment he came on screen you immediately disliked him. Everything about his performance just resonated a smug jerkiness. It’s hard to explain but in the real world, he’s the guy that walks into a room and his smugness just instantly puts him on your shit list. You kinda just want to punch him in the face.

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Now between these two phenomenal performances was Alicia Vikander. A fairly new name to me but about the same level as Domhnall Gleeson in terms of celebrity awareness opinion. Out of the three performances, she blew the other two out of the water. With a serene ability to somehow be menacingly comforting, you’re left guessing just what her true intentions are until the end. Her performance was ethereal which worked sublimely for her AI character.

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Beyond the performances, there was something interesting going on with the directing choices. The directorial style reminded me of a documentary. It had title cards to differentiate the different sessions that Caleb participated in. Scenes of b-roll footage often were interspersed between the more traditional scripted sequences. While this film would lend itself to a documentary style, having the two styles often felt jarring. Sometimes it worked while other times I was just confused as to the director’s vision.

This being said, I have to congratulate the director on a truly chilling AI film. As I’ve already stated previously, you’re left guessing as to the true intentions of each character. Not really sure who’s good and who’s bad. Each story beat was masterfully told to keep the audience guessing and always wondering how it will turn out.

In terms of the ending, which I won’t spoil, it is not a happy ending. In fact, there is a moment where the director gives you a moment of hope just to bring you crashing down minutes later into the melancholic ending. After all, the ending is happier depending on whose perspective you choose from. Before I spoil anything, I’m just trying to say this isn’t the typical Hollywood happy ending.

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I would remiss if I didn’t take sometime to focus on the visual effects. Alicia Vikander’s robot has see-through arms, legs, and a mid-section which are largely visible for a majority of the film. I’m not a VFX expert but I feel like making see-through parts believable is somewhat difficult. The best part is that they still look realistic when seen against the flesh and blood humans. Again, something really hard to do.

All in all, this is a great film hands down, especially for sci-fi fans. It reminds me a lot of I, Robot, the book not the film adaptation. In a time where sci-fi is often synonymous with laser guns and explosions, it was refreshing to see a film that focuses on the intrigue and broader concepts found in classic sci-fi. Think Isaac Asimov meets Blade Runner. If you haven’t yet, go see Ex-Machina you won’t be disappointed.

What Happens After Age of Ultron?

What Happens After Age of Ultron?
Posted by on May 8, 2015
in Film Thoughts | No Comments

So this might be obvious but this article will be filled with numerous spoilers both for Age of Ultron as well as potential spoilers for the future of the MCU. Still with me? Good.

 

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First and foremost, Age of Ultron (AoU) is pretty fantastic. I won’t go as far to say that it is better than the first Avengers but it is different. The best way to put it is that AoU felt like the natural progression of where the story would go. There were some pacing issues that led to a somewhat overstuffed film. Nothing that’s enough to lower the quality of the film overall. What was very similar to the Avengers is the connection AoU had with the rest of the MCU. With the same Mcguffin, Loki’s spear, central to the plot but with a new villain we gained new insight into what’s happening in the MCU. For instance, while we knew about the upcoming Infinity War, our heroes are finally aware of the infinity stones. Thor even gives our heroes the lowdown on just how powerful they are and that someone *cough* Thanos *cough* has been manipulating them to bring them about.

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All this to say it seems the MCU is finally catching up to what we as the audience know what’s going to happen. What I felt was still missing was clarification on Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. It has not been confirmed that they are Inhumans or specifically how they got their powers. Just that they were experimented on by Baron von Strucker using Loki’s Scepter. What we learned later in the film is that Loki’s Scepter actually housed the Mind Infinity Stone. How this gave QS his speed and even SW’s power is unclear.

Now, SW has telepathic/telekinetic powers which actually makes sense if they came from the Mind stone. QS still has no explanation for his powers. My theory is that all the Infinity Stones are actually connected in some way. Like they are always pulled towards each other or something. Let’s just chalk it up to “science” at this point. Since Strucker had no idea what exactly he was dealing with, by experimenting he stumbled onto this connection. Thus gifting the Twins with powers associated with the other stones. Even SW who seemingly only has the powers of the Mind Stone. However, if you notice both SW and QS are the only ones with color themes attached to their powers. Every time SW uses her powers, there is a red aura similar to that of the Aether, or Reality Stone. For QS, there’s a blue aura much like the Tesseract or Space Stone. My theory is that SW actually has the powers of the Mind Stone and the Reality Stone. The Mind Stone explains her mind tricks while the Reality Stone explains here telekinesis. Especially when you see QS die and SW disintegrates the Ultron drones, which reminded me of the Aether dust in Thor: The Dark World. For QS, I would say he has the powers of the Space Stone and the Time Stone. After all, speed is measured by distance and time. I really have no solid proof of this but if this is true, it could be incredibly important for Infinity War.

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When all the Infinity Stones are assembled in the Infinity Gauntlet, the bearer has godlike powers. In the Infinity Gauntlet comic Thanos not only defeats all of Earth’s heroes but the most powerful beings in the Marvel Universe without breaking a sweat. He was eventually defeated by his own hubris and basically by just giving up. However, if I’m correct Marvel could be going in a different direction for the MCU. Once Thanos has the gauntlet, how exactly could our heroes defeat him? Well if some of our heroes had a connection with some of the stones, they could potentially wrestle control of them from Thanos. This is a long shot but we won’t really know until we see Infinity War in theaters.

Another interesting tidbit is the revelation that their are two Infinity Gauntlets. One in Odin’s vault on Asgard and the other with Thanos. What could this mean? Possibly that Odin’s gauntlet will be able to wrestle the stones from Thanos’ gauntlet. Or it will be a way for Odin or someone else to force their influence on the stones. Really this is all speculation since nothing will be confirmed for a very long time.

Hopefully we’ll get some answers in Captain America: Civil War which will setup Infinity War more directly than even AoU. Maybe another stone winds up on Earth and that’s what kicks off the superhero war. Only time will tell. Until then, we at least have Ant-Man, AKA Jessica Jones and Agents of SHIELD to keep us satisfied.

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