Can Artificial Intelligence (a.k.a. regular computing) generate art? The jury is still out (even if the US copyright office is not). I’m skeptical and an idea popped into my head last night; can ‘AI’ generate something even remotely close to the real thing and how would they compare? E.g. what if we asked it to generate images of actor John Goodman as Fred Flintstone?
Readers of a certain age may already know where this ends up but for those unfamiliar, here is a primer:Yes, that’s actors John Goodman and Rick Moranis as Fred and Barney respectively in the live-action Flintstones movie from 1994.
The most obvious question (why?) is a bit odious. Numbers were crunched, the costs of merging two companies have to be met, and the results say as much. Except the response is near-universal and the only people that are apparently pleased are those at the very top. The less obvious questions concern the decisions that revolve around the strategy. The company cans a load of content to save a buck; then what?
Well, on the one hand, the company thinks that by slimming down their offerings, they can create growth from a smaller core audience. On the other hand, that’s 20th Century cable network thinking in a 21st Century streaming age. Perhaps it’s no surprise given that HBO pioneered the premium approach in the first place by charging more, but offering the kind of entertainment you couldn’t find anywhere else. That’s a business model that’s over the hill though. Streaming is a winner-take-all game that Hollywood only realised too late when Netflix lapped up streaming rights for basically nothing and locked studios out of their own content for those crucial first years.
You see, with streaming, you either offer everything to everyone, or watch consumers use your competitors. Now everyone is playing catch-up and only Disney, with its exceptionally deep pockets, can lay claim to gaining ground. They did not buy 20th Century FOX just for kicks, they needed that company’s library, production capabilities, and brand to expand Disney+’s offerings to truly cater to everyone.
Where does animation fit into all this? Animation tends to appeal to a wide variety of audiences and tends to remain perennially popular. That makes animation good for a service’s library. Old shows can sit there, waiting to be discovered (or rediscovred). I cannot fathom that the marginal cost of storing and streaming content (compared to producing it) is enough to justify removing it altogether. How easy could it have been for WBD to simply stop producing new shows instead of obliterating them like they did?
The other aspect is that kids like animation. They like it a lot. Kids don’t have control over which streaming services they use, but their parents do. It’s not as emphasised now as much as it used to be, but a key focus of Netlfix’s marketing approach is families and Disney have followed suit. How many parents are re-evaluating their subscription to TWD’s services now? Throw in a cost of living crisis and it’s not hard to see where the trimmings might come from. Fast forward 5-10 years and you have a company that’s broken just about all of the Twenty Two Immutable Laws of Marketing.
So is animation a root cause or merely collatoral damage? I’d say it’s a mixture of both seeing as animation is expensive to produce but also tends to deliver greater long-term value; emphasis on the tends to. One could argue that both Warner Bros. and Discovery have failed to devote enough time, energy, and resources to their animated offerings, saw the writing on the wall, and simply decided to give up.
Based on the novel of the same name, Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko is another indie feather in the cap of GKIDS and Shout! Factory.
“Brash single mother Nikuko is well-known for her bold spirit, much to the embarrassment of Kikuko, her pensive yet imaginative daughter. In contrast to her mother, Kikuko wants nothing more than to fit in as she navigates the everyday social dramas of middle school. Life in the harbor is peaceful until a shocking revelation from the past threatens to uproot the pair’s tender relationship.”
Yet again, eastern creators show up just how stale and predictable American filmmaking has become and while Disney’s latest critical success is trumpeted from the rooftops, fantastic films like this continue to find favor with critics and viewers alike. Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko is a quirky film that tells a story and is a refreshing change from films that merely document a quest. Centre stage is of course, Nikuko herself. A somewhat tragic, yet irrepressible character; her boundless optimism in the face of adversity contrasts starkly with her daughter Kikuko who is neither as jovial, or as optimistic, yet is perhaps the real adult in the relationship. Their bifurcated relationship is nonetheless strong made with a unique mother-daughter bond.
The story meanders and at one point I was left wondering where things were going but by the end I realised that it’s less about where things are going and more about where they’ve been.
The animation is lively, and watching this film on a full stomach is required lest the stunning depictions of food overwhelm your experience. Pixar spent however many millions in an attempt to create appealing CGI food in Ratatouille and a traditionally animated film like this comes along and proves it was all in vain.
The only shortcoming is to be found in the writing; it’s serviceable but doesn’t do the story or the characters the justice they deserve.
Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko is primarily a retrospective film and how the various episodes and choices in life invariably lead us to places we never anticipated. One wishes that more western animated films could be as bold.
Eighty-something years is a pretty good run though, right?
All good things come to an end and animation at the cinema is no different. Cinemas are struggling and (at least in the US) audiences have been declining for a long time even as studios tout rising box office revenues to deflect attention from that. The COVID-19 pandemic merely bought forward the inevitable switch to streaming by a good five or so years; hastening the end of the every-man multiplex.
Which means the golden age of animation at the cinema appears to be over. The slow return of films (and audiences) to cinemas coupled with numerous studios’ decision to release films directly to streaming suggests that the cinema as a regularly occurring experience is finished.
…the larger discussion revolves around whether studios like Pixar can afford to create, and maintain the infrastructure to deliver, films costing hundreds of millions…
Lightyear is a symptom of this trend. Middling reviews aside, the film leans hard on Pixar’s brand without success. The studio’s other recent films have gone straight to Disney+; leading to staffers moaning on Twitter that the films are devalued as a result.
It’s a bit more complicated than that though. Films costs have to be recouped and the box office was the first route to doing so until now. Netflix demonstrated that film costs could be decoupled from outright performance and instead folded into overall subscriber revenues; you spend the money you have and not the money you’ll hope you have in an effort to maintain and grow income in the future.
Mainstream culture has changed and the concept of a monoculture where we all consume the same media is gone. We don’t all watch the same films (if we can even watch them all) let alone go to the same location to watch them. Complaining about films being denied their moment to shine at a movie house is anachronistic thinking. Parroting their performance when they succeed there is devoid of meaning. Saturday Night Live gets a lot of attention from media that intones a wildly influential show but the numbers watching, and the numbers of real people talking, tell a very different story. It doesn’t matter if SNL is actually funny; if everyone is busy watching something else to care, it can’t be a paragon of culture.
If anything, going straight to streaming is a sign of confidence in quality. Lightyear going to the box office is a sign that Disney figured they had to hedge their bets by recouping at least some of the film’s massive $200 million cost at the box office because their data most assuredly told them such a turkey wasn’t going to deliver any subscriber growth to Disney+.
I don’t agree with /Film’s take on Pixar’s future, especially since it focuses on the box office, and argues that Disney shouldn’t shy away from a studio who’s delivered hits in the past. I think the larger discussion revolves around whether studios like Pixar can afford to create, and maintain the infrastructure to deliver, films costing hundreds of millions if the return on investment isn’t as clear cut or as swift as the weekend box office.
Low Budget =/= Low Quality;
This is what Netflix has wrought: animated films that are decent quality yet low cost and delivered frequently. Large budget films exist because they had economics which supported them. What happens when those economics are no longer there or are unfavourable? Technology has also advanced to the point where technological prowess is kind of irrelevant. Will a $300 million film look better than a $75 million one? Probably. Will the audience notice enough to care…? Illumination’s success provides a definitive answer.
What does the future hold? Like Spielberg, I agree (and have agreed since he made the remarks in 2013) that the cinema experience isn’t dead, but it will evolve into something that is consumed rarely; perhaps once or twice a year and with an increased focus on older films people want to see on a big screen with others. This will continue for a few decades until cinema itself becomes an anachronism like vaudeville, jukeboxes, and the cassette tape.
Why? I mean, Kaling is not short on talent but she couldn’t have created something original instead? She’s already remaking the character, how much additional effort would be needed to make one truly her own? Not much! one wonders whether Kaling pitched an original show that got shot down for [insert your own reasons here] but got a reprieve when some executive realised they could leverage existing IP by making it about Velma.
And why does it have to be for adults? We’ve seen time and again that ‘adult’ shows are a niche product while shows with broader appeal can be just as ‘adult’ without toeing the line between PG and Rule 34.
ITS AN ADULT ANIMATED SERIES, SEE THERES GORE AND A NAKED GIRL AND EVERYTHING! THATS HOW U KNOW IT'S FOR ADULTS!!
The Simpsons is a prime example. You don’t get much more ‘adult’ than showcasing the effects of divorce on the kids, or even better, political campaigns. I suppose that’s all a bit too boring these days though.
The risk of officially-santioned Rule 34 material is also very real. Ren & Stimpy in its original series was a Nicktoon and while it was infamous for getting crap past the radar, when John K. was given free reign to indulge himself, the results are deeply buried for very good reasons; sullying the reputation of the original (amongst other reasons). The ‘nudge nudge, wink wink’ tone of a series mkaes for a good in-joke but once the secret was out, well, where’s the fun in that?
Will the same happen to Velma and Scooby Doo? What happens when Velma is taken beyond her natural environment of a kids show and relocated to a trope-laden college setting? Will the series be a critical take on female characters like Velma or is it destined to be a run-of-the-mill adult show with no real substance of any kind? Given the raft of such shows lately, my guess is a firm yes.
I like Velma, but can I like Kaling’s version of Velma? It’s too early to tell but I’m not optimistic.
Animators are a proud bunch and rightly so. Animation is not an easy artform to learn, let alone master. Animators draw upon a legacy that stretches back a hundred years whose earliest works continue to educate and inspire. Live-action can’t quite say the same; nobody makes silent films anymore but while rubber hose animation is antiquated, it never became obsolete either. Such longevity may be coming to an end and while the cause is not a single one, one company looms large: Netflix
Alternatively the hero or villain of the entertainment business, Netflix nonetheless pushed the industry into the modern era by catching it off-guard with streaming. Everyone struggled to catch up, while Netflix attempted to cement its moat with original content in every shape and form. Animation forms a key part of that moat; all the better to keep Disney at bay by acquiring younger viewers before they know who Disney even is. Netflix never set out to replace your favourite cable channel, it set out to replace your entire cable service. Ergo the often contradictory personality of the company’s offerings. High culture critical darlings on the one hand, and bargain basement, lowest common denominator trash TV on the other.
Animation was not going to escape the same fate and for every Midnight Gospel, there were a half dozen DreamWorks spinoffs. Yet the allure of a creative space with minimal executive interference was potent. Numerous high profile creators joined and excelled at Netflix and much like Nickelodeon thirty years prior, the results showed.
Yet, one wonders if their endeavours were actually part of a ruse. Not in the sense that Netflix would cast them off once the audience was acquired (which may or may not be or become true), but rather that Netflix, in its mad dash to build a library of content and reliance on data to get it there, was willing and able to actively devalue their contributions by drastically increasing the rate of production. There was a time when Disney would put out an animated film only once every three years. Then it became one every year, then it became one a quarter. Now Netflix is releasing one practically every week.
The company uses data extensively and in a capacity far beyond what Nielson ratings can ever hope to provide:
To put it simply, if you’re watching any TV show or movie on Netflix, it knows the date, location, and device being used to watch, as well as the time of your watching. On top of that, Netflix also knows about how and when you pause and resume your shows and movies. They also take into consideration if you are completing the show or not, how many hours, days, or weeks to complete the episode or a season or a movie.
Ultimately, it tracks every action taken by the user on Netflix and considers it as a data point. How many metrics will be there in total which Netflix might be using for data collection?
People and the data they produce changes over time though. What you liked as a kid is not what you may like today or what you may like in ten year’s time. Netflix does not care about the past or future though. They only care about the now, or rather, the future as far as it takes to produce and release a film or show. They produce things to appeal to viewers now. To grab their attention now. To keep watching Netflix now.
Netflix’s credo: Why rewatch an old favourite when a sparkly potential new favourite awaits to be discovered?
Caring (or Lack Thereof)
Truthfully, do audiences really even care? Netflix zeroed in on a formula that’s worked and will continue to refine it as the data suggests they should. Audiences demand entertainment; artists are among the few looking for fulfillment and a call to a greater cause. The former are concerned with their immediate gratification, not with the effort it took to gratify them or what happens to those involved thereafter. American football satiates an immediate need for pleasure; the lasting physical and psychological damage done to the players is the last thing on viewer’s minds.
Creators pour their heart and soul into passion projects hoping they will provide a lifetime of enjoyment but the reality is a flash in the pan. Culture moves so fast and things have to hit instantly and powerfully to even create awareness let alone viewership. Hence Netflix’s policy of only starting any marketing efforts a month in advance of release; any sooner and audiences will consider it old news by the time they can watch, if they even want to. Like I wrote in my recent Oscars post: stuff released in 2021 may as well have been released in 2001; that’s how old they appear now. Animation is not safer on other platforms either; all of which have the same library problem Netflix did but additionally face breakneck production schedules to catch up and keep pace with the industry leader.
Consume and Throw Away
What this adds up to is a new disposablness of animation. Artistic endeavours designed to be popular now and not the future, to be binged instantly before spending an eternity in a library; only ever a click away but obscured by a thicket of new content. The latest news out of Netflix reinforces this fear. A fear that even the greatest is simply no better than the average and no less fitting of a similar fate.
A final word of warning: animation is not a genre but may as well be as far as audiences are concerned. Westerns are a genre, and as they increased in popularity they too became formuaic and disposable and have deservedly languished in limbo for the past half a century.
The Oscars in general are struggling with relevance in an age of streaming and a population that has better things to do yet the animation community, year after year, finds plenty to alternately celebrate and complain about the animated awards. Why even bother getting worked up over something that is no longer relevant?
There was a time when the animated Oscars could be considered relevant but those days are over. In case you missed it, this year’s ceremony dispensed with the Best Animated Short category from the live broadcast (relegating it to a prerecorded segment), and the Best Animated Feature went to Disney’s Encanto; the studio’s ninth win in ten years, and 13th win in 15 years (including Pixar films).
Which, if you’re the director of a Disney animated film, almost has to feel like a participation trophy, right? You received it because of what you did not how well you did it. The award may be worth something personally, but to everyone else, it’s like the New England Patriots winning another Superbowl; exciting for them, boring (and skippable) for the rest of us, and a concern for the NFL that needs high viewership. Disney is going to release a film every year, so what’s the point? That’s strike one.
It’s not a perfect system, but at least the Annie’s acknowledge that award ceremonies are capable of becoming dominated by the films intertwined with the voting membership. Hence their ‘Best Indie Feature’ category. The Oscars skates long and hard on its reputation as the pinnacle award in movie-making yet repeatedly baulks at recognising the downright refusal of its membership to consider animation as an equal to live-action. Why even bother participating in something that shows no sign of treating you any better? That’s strike two.
Do you know anyone who watches an animated film because it won an Oscar? Of course not, everyone watches them when they are released and instantly move on to the next new film. Let’s be honest here, the Oscars are as much a promotional/marketing machine as they are a recognition of the best. There is, however, no longer an ‘Oscar bump’ to boost winning films and in any case, films on streaming networks don’t obtain the same financial benefit. Recognising the best film from the previous year is also a laughable exercise in 2022. We’ve moved on to this year’s films which are so often in practice, simply better. Everything from 2021 is so far in the rearview mirror, we can’t even see it. So you watch a film and nine months later it wins an award? Do you care? Do you feel validated that you spent the time wisely? I wouldn’t and I suspect I’m not alone in that regard. That’s strike three.
Studios may continue to see value in gunning for an Academy Award but perhaps its time the industry as a whole just moves on. Consumers certainly have.
The Walt Disney Company’s been in the news this week in ways that show it in a poor light. What’s going on and why does a company with erstwhile positive LBGTQ+ attitudes suddenly find itself on the defensive?
This week, ‘SQRAT’ creator Ivy ‘Supersonic’ Silberstein celebrated the postscript of over a decade of litigation against Blue Sky Studios/FOX (subsequently Disney). A lot of articles (and there are quite a few) comment that Disney can no longer use the character ‘Scrat’ or create any more films featuring him. Such an assertion isn’t entirely correct and once again highlights the muddy waters that lie between copyright and trademarks. Read on to find out why. …
Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) are the buzzword/fad/hot thing of the moment. FOX’s recent announcement that they were working on a show using the technology proved an inspiration to others but can the technology and the hype surrounding it be used to scam fans? It’s easier than you may think.
What is an NFT?
The gist is that since computers can create infinite perfect copies, art loses its inherent rarity factor. Enter the blockchain, essentially a glorified ledger that contains entries for each piece of art with a corresponding entry for the name of the ‘owner’. The ledger is structured such that everyone can see the entries and can therefore agree on the validity of the entries. It’s like a copy of the Mona Lisa; everyone knows the original is owned by the Louvre. An NFT takes that principle and applies it to any piece of artwork (or other ‘asset’); anyone can possess a copy, but only the buyer is listed as the agreed-upon owner.
How is This Related to Animation?
Selling the assets of shows and films always seemed like a sort of afterthought for studios. Indeed, many times they were considered waste to be disposed of. (For the life of me, I cannot now locate a link to the story of the entire, yes the entire, set of thousands of production cels from the Back to the Future TV show being put up for auction).
Enter Non-Fungible Tokens and their promise to allow creators to once-again exploit the rarity factor of their art without having to risk the exposure of having their art out there in limitless quantities.
Although FOX announced an NFT-based show a while back, Blockchain Buddies seems to be the first actual animated show to get out there with the technology. Per AWN:
The project will be a first of its kind interactive animated project, with NFT holding community members empowered to shape the future of the creative universe.
In other words, the show creates NFT assets that are purchased by fans. Those fans are then given some sort of say in how the show progresses. This is very similar to the approach that FOX announced with their project and a good indicator of the direction creator see NFT projects developing.
There’s a few positive aspects that I see to all this. The first is that it strengthens the bond between creators and fans. The latter gain a vested interest in the show, and creators can rely on their fans to guide the show in ways that keep them engaged and therefore maintain viability.
The second is that it shifts animated shows (and films, etc.) away from the consumerist approach to merchandise. Instead of cranking out mass-produced physical items, support is reduced down to a small number of relatively high-cost NFT assets. Fans thus gain more unique things to treasure.
If there are upsides, there has to be downsides and they illustrate how NFTs can be a double-edged sword. Bringing fans closer to the creators will make conflicts both more inevitable, and disruptive. If creators want to go one direction and fans want to go in another, who has the final say? Do creators need a ‘Code of Conduct’ for fans?
In tying the value of a show to quote/unqoute ‘assets’ there is a possibility that the life-span and indeed the shelf-life of shows becomes smaller. As new shows arrive using similar NFT value propositions, older shows are likely to lose value and ultimately become worthless. What happens than? When a show relies on a market as an intrinsic indicator of its value, what happens if the bottom falls out of the market for a particular show? What if fans rebel en masse and collapse the market for a show?
In business, companies must follow certain rules and regulations pertaining to the relationship between the ownership of the business, and the management who run it. NFTs are unbridled by such worries; people who buy an NFT are not considered an owner in the corporate entity that actually owns the show. (Such is my hunch.)
NFTs are new, but scams and frauds are not. How this affects animation and animation fans is through a microcap fraud. From the US government:
Fraudsters often use emerging technologies or industries – including Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) and digital assets – to entice investors as part of a fraudulent or manipulative scheme. For example, they may publicly announce a development that is intended to affect a company’s stock price. Or they may promote a company that claims to be developing products or services relating to the latest news events or trends.
Here’s an example:
The image above is typical of the scam. It promotes all the benefits of buying in; even providing links that from first glance provide credibility. Clicking on the YouTube links brings you to something very different however. Animation-based NFTs frauds emphasise a community-based, common-interest, vested-ownership in a TV show or film. Yet placing them under a harshly critical light exposes the fraud. They are not simple sales agreements (exchanging money for goods or services), they are investment vehicles that require the exchange of money for an economic asset (the NFT).
Investing vs. NFTs
Disclaimer that the below is not intended to be, or should be interpreted as, financial advice. Always consult a registered financial advisor prior to making any investments
Investing is not for the faint-hearted and serious investors will always undertake their due-diligence before committing to an investment. That due-diligence is a thorough and intensely critical look at the investment being offered, but also its potential relative to other investments. For example, if you’re thinking of buying stock in The Walt Disney Company, you want to be really sure that the value of the stock is going to go up, but you also want to be really really sure that stock in Netflix isn’t going to go up by even more. Smart investors hedge their bets and buy stock in both companies.
NFTs on the other hand…
They’re more like investing in magic beans. Could they sprout a giant beanstalk? It’s possible. Can you sell or trade them to someone else? Sure. What happens if you buy the beans and nothing happens AND you can’t sell them? ¯\\_ (?)_/¯
Trust, or The Lack Thereof
Buying into an NFT-based show is akin to a rigged hoop-toss game at a carnival. The prize is right in front of you but only the game operator knows whether you can actually win or not.
The landscape is littered with failed Kickstarter projects as it is. Even major networks cast ideas and pilots aside all the time. Buying into an NFT animated TV show or film comes with ZERO guarantees that you will actually receive what is promised. Trust is wholly on the side of the fan which is why the traditional models of studio/broadcaster financing that’s firewalled from consumers is necessary. NFT-based funding runs roughshod over this; regardless if it’s a legitimate corporation like FOX, or a conman on the internet like in the images above.
I dislike the idea of NFTs although the original idea for community-verified ownership remains interesting. I also fail to see enough upsides to exploiting NFTs to create a show. People have found an interesting way of financing their shows and run their cons that skips around necessary laws and regulations. There are similar benefits and pitfalls to simply creating a company that owns a show and inviting fans to by shares. Of course that requires red tape with stiff penalties for fraud. NFTs are, for the moment, free of such government oversight and will wreck havoc until brought under regulation. In the meantime, caveat emptor.
Better late than never, the seminal anime TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion arrives on Blu-Ray at last.
Fans of Neon Genesis Evangelion have it relatively lucky (at least in Japan and the US), where the show and its films have been given numerous home media releases down through the years. The release that I happen to own is the Platinum Collection which was definitive at the time but shows its age in 2021 and hearkens back to a time when you pretty much had to buy DVDs in order to watch anime, and special features were almost always an afterthought.
Thankfully, GKIDS and Shout! Factory have created not one, but three collections for the Eva fan: the Ultimate Edition, the Collector’s Edition, and the Standard Edition. All three are a sincere attempt to appeal to all types of fan from the dedicated all the way down to the curious casual.
The Ultimate Edition
Unfortunately the Ultimate Collection sold out the day it was announced so unless there is an expansion to the limited quantity of 5,000, you are unfortunately out of luck.
The Collector’s Edition
The Collector’s Edition arrives on December 2nd and, while less featured than the Ultimate Edition, nonetheless packs a punch:
The NEON GENESIS EVANGELION Collector’s Edition is a deluxe 11-disc set presented in a rigid case, containing a 40-page book, 8 art cards, the Official Dub and Subtitled versions, and the bonus Classic Dub and Subtitled versions. The Collector’s Edition set contains over seven hours of bonus features including animatics, TV commercials, music videos, Japanese cast auditions, trailers, and more.
The Standard Edition
The Standard Edition, while lighter still, is no slouch and Shout! Factory were kind enough to send a review copy:
The Standard Edition is an essential five-disc set that will contain over five hours of bonus features, including animatics, TV commercials, music videos, and more.
This set is the closest to my own Platinum Collection but is by far its superior. I can say with satisfaction that it’s a joy to see Evangelion finally available in HD! All the detail, all the effort that went into the hand-drawn animation is finally allowed to shine and in its original 5:4 aspect ratio too. A 5.1 channel soundtrack also adds an extra level of enjoyment to the show that it lacked before and if you’re a purist, the original stereo tracks are included as well.
Both EVA films are also included, which is a great benefit given that they are usually separated from the series and in the case of End of Evangelion, are required viewing to feel you’ve seen the complete series.
The extra features are a very nice touch. So often with older films and (especially) TV shows, there is a dearth of material to work with with the result that the release’s producers have to rely on retrospectives and other gimmicks to pad it out. Fortunately nothing could be further from the truth here. There’s plenty of original content to choose from and I personally enjoyed the animatics as they offer an insight into how the show actually came together. With over 5 hours on the Standard Edition and even more on the Collector’s and Ultimate editions, they will please fans and entice non-fans further into the series too.
The only aspect I was disappointed with is that, as an [ahem] older fan that first viewed the series with the original English dub featuring Spike Spencer, Allison Keith, Tiffany Grant, et al, I would have to opt for the pricier Collector’s Edition. This is understandable as licensing isn’t free and it is unlikely to be a consideration new fans or those that live and die by their Japanese subs. That this trivial matter is the only negative aspect of the whole release is telling of the quality of the sets.
All in all, this is a timely release that will allow Eva fans to fill in the hole in their collection that the original TV series and films occupy.