Tag: av

Movie ‘sanitizer’ VidAngel files for bankruptcy

Back in 2016, Hollywood studios were able to stop VidAngel from streaming sanitized versions of blockbuster hits, claiming that its system for doing so was covered under the Family Movie Act of 2005. The injunction, which VidAngel promised to appeal, claimed that the company was operating as an unlicensed video on demand service.Unfortunately, the company is now filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

"...chapter 11 is simply a reorganization and part of our legal and business strategy," Harmon wrote in a blog post. "Per federal law, chapter 11 reorganization automatically pauses our lawsuit with Disney and the other plaintiffs in California." In an attempt at positive spin, CEO Neal Harmon also wrote that the strategy lets them continue another lawsuit, this one in Utah, to prove that its filtering system is legal. According to Harmon, VidAngel has a new filtering system for Netflix, HBO and Amazon, millions of dollars in the bank and is generating even more millions in revenue. Apparently, the market for "clean" versions of movies and television shows is larger than you might have thought.

Harmon notes that even if the company loses the lawsuit brought by Disney and other studios in California, it will have enough revenue from its new system to pay any court-ordered damages. "That way," he wrote, "VidAngel can survive and reap a return for the many thousands of customers who invested in us."

Via: AV Club

Source: VidAngel


YouTube Red’s next show is a Tinder dating comedy

YouTube Red, the company's premium service, has a built up a stable of original programming, but for the most part they don't resemble traditional TV shows. Now, YouTube is trying a different tactic. The company has greenlighted Swipe Right, a comedy series starring Carly Craig (American Housewife), Deadline reports. It'll focus on one woman's mission to date her 252 Tinder matches -- and of course, for full hilarity, she'll get some help from her married sister and widowed mother (who's also dating online). It sounds like a typical comedy setup for the Tinder age, but it's also the sort of multi-generational comedy YouTube Red needs to appeal to more people.

Swipe Right, which is co-created by Craig and Daniel Reisinger, will premiere on YouTube Red next year. Robin Schiff (Romy & Michele's High School Reunion) will serve as the showrunner. Given that there are already several Swipe Right projects listed on IMDB, I also wouldn't be surprised if the show ends up getting rebadged before its premiere.

Source: Deadline


Spotify’s RISE program will try to find future music superstars

It's hard to deny Spotify's influence on the current music landscape. After all, the streaming service has over 50 million paid subscribers. Now, they're using that influence to help up and coming artists. Today, Spotify introduced RISE, which it bills as "a program designed to identify and break the next wave of music superstars." There will be a total of sixteen artists per year in the program, announced in groups of four every few months. It will launch in the US, Canada and the UK to start.

The company announced the first four artists in the RISE program are Kim Petras (pop), Lauv (pop/rock), Russell Dickerson (country) and Trippie Red (hip hop). Spotify is committed to promoting their RISE artists on and off the service, including RISE playlists and audio and video content that goes into each artist's story. Delta Airlines will also be promoting RISE artists on aircraft seatbacks through the Delta Artist Spotlight program.

It appears as though these artists do have record deals -- Russell Dickerson, for example, is signed with Triple Tigers/Sony, so it appears that Spotify isn't interested in getting into the record label business. Instead, they appear to have identified up-and-coming artists -- some of whom have already have some success on Spotify, with viral singles -- with an aim to turn them into the next global superstars.

Via: TechCrunch

Source: Spotify


Billboard’s charts will give more weight to paid music streams in 2018

Starting in 2018, Billboard will change the way it counts streaming music for its charts. Right now, the way it works for the Billboard Hot 100 songs chart is that there are two tiers for streaming music: on demand (where you can select what you listen to) and programmed (think Pandora). On demand listening is given a greater weight than programmed. But next year, the company will add another tier. Paid subscription services (such as Apple Music and the paid tiers of services like Spotify) will have more weight than purely ad-supported listening and unpaid tiers of subscription streaming services.

Billboard says of the switch, "The shift to a multi-level streaming approach to Billboard's chart methodology is a reflection of how music is now being consumed on streaming services, migrating from a pure on-demand experience to a more diverse selection of listening preferences (including playlists and radio), and the various options in which a consumer can access music based on their subscription commitment." It's admirable that the company is keeping its service responsive and reflexive, given how quickly the way we consume music has changed over the years.

The emphasis on paid streaming music, versus free or ad-supported streaming, is an interesting development. It gives music companies further incentive to pressure Spotify and other services that use this kind of tier system to convert more of their subscribers from ad-supported to paid. Spotify historically has shown reluctance to restrict content from its unpaid users, though tough negotiations with music labels have forced the streaming service to take action on that front. Now, it looks like the next round of negotiations might be even harder for services such as Spotify.

Via: The Verge

Source: Billboard


Harman Kardon Invoke review: The first Cortana speaker sounds amazing

Smart speakers are everywhere this year. So far, we've seen new entries from Apple, Amazon, Google and Sonos. Now, Microsoft is finally ready to join the party. The Harman Kardon Invoke is the first speaker to feature Microsoft's Cortana virtual assistant. Since it's coming from a brand known for audio gear, it promises better sound than the competition. And for the most part, it succeeds. The Invoke is miles ahead of Amazon's original Echo and Google's Home when it comes to audio quality. But Cortana still has to mature a bit before it can successfully take on Alexa.

Hardware

The Invoke is a large, cylindrical speaker that bears a striking resemblance to the Echo. It's just as tall as Amazon's, except wider toward the bottom. There's also a huge difference in build quality: The Echo is made entirely of plastic, while the Invoke features a more premium feeling metallic case, with only a bit of plastic around the base. Even the control dial feels much better than the Echo's; it's turns more smoothly and seems like you're controlling a piece of high-end audio gear. Don't forget, Harman Kardon has been building things like receivers and speakers for years.

There's a touch-sensitive area at the top, as well as a frosted display that shows you when Cortana is listening and the volume level. That top portion also houses the seven far-field microphone array, which lets the speaker hear you no matter where you are in a room. Overall, it's a pretty streamlined device. There are only two buttons in the back, which let you mute and pair the speaker with Bluetooth devices. There's also a diagnostic micro-USB port nestled near the power connection (which could be used for upgrading firmware or troubleshooting issues). My only real issue with the speaker is its ridiculously short three-foot power cord. You can easily augment that with an extension cord, but would it have been that hard include something longer?

Under the hood, the Invoke features three tweeters and three woofers that fill up most of the case. In comparison, the new Echo has just one woofer and tweeter. The Invoke even has more speaker hardware than the Sonos Play 1, which only has a single woofer and tweeter as well. Apple's forthcoming HomePod, meanwhile, has four small tweeters and a woofer. I'll admit, it's tough to compare speakers when you're just looking at what they're made of. What's more important is how they sound, and this speaker sounds great.

In use

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

To set up the Invoke, you'll need Cortana's iPhone or Android app. Alternatively, you can use a Windows 10 PC. The speaker shows up as a device in Cortana's settings, and it takes just a few seconds to connect to it. After that, all you need to do is say "Hey Cortana" and start issuing commands. You could ask about the current weather, the latest news, or for directions. For the latter, it'll read off basic navigation instructions and send a copy to the Cortana app on your phone. These are all things Cortana has been able to do for years on PCs and smartphones, but having it available in a standalone speaker is quite useful.

I started out testing the Invoke by doing just about everything I do with my Amazon Echo. It played New York City's NPR station from TuneIn when I asked it to "Play WNYC." And it had no trouble relaying the weather when I asked. (That might sound dull, but it's something I end up asking my Echo several times a day.)

The Invoke's biggest weakness at this point is the limited selection of audio streaming services that Cortana works with. So far, the list includes, Spotify, Tunein, and iHeartradio. There's no Pandora support yet, which is a big disappointment considering this is being positioned as a music-first device. Still, Microsoft says it's in talks to sort that out. The company also intends to work with other services like Soundcloud and Deezer, but it's unclear when we'll see those available on the Invoke. In Spotify, the speaker found my Discover Weekly playlist when I asked for it, and it also easily played music from specific artists and albums. It's also a Spotify Connect device, meaning you can control what the Invoke is playing from any of the service's apps, either on your computer or mobile.

I've mentioned this already, but it's worth repeating: The Invoke sounds fantastic. Music from every genre sounded immersive, with detailed mid-range, crisp highs and some decent low-end thump. It can easily fill a room -- but more than that, it does so in a way that's enjoyable. It sounds more like a decent bookshelf speaker than a mere smart gadget. The better sound quality also makes radio shows and podcasts sound more natural. The Invoke simply blows the original Amazon Echo away. I haven't tested out the new model yet, though, which is supposed to sound better.

I've listened to the Echo daily for years, and generally I've found it good enough for casual listening, but that's it. The difference between Amazon's speaker and Harman Kardon's is readily apparent when you switch between the two back and forth (which is pretty easy using Spotify Connect). With Flying Lotus's tracks in particular, the difference between the two is stark. The Invoke's audio is much richer and nuanced, while the Echo sounds cheap and flat by comparison.

Cortana's voice also sounds much more natural than Alexa at this point. When I asked her to tell stories and jokes, it was difficult to notice that I was listening to something completely artificial, and not lines read by her voice artist. Alexa is getting steadily better, but it still sounds vaguely robotic.

Amazon's voice assistant wins out when it comes to controlling smart home devices, though. Cortana works with Wink, Nest, Smartthings and Hue, but it doesn't integrate with devices from Sonos or Logitech's Harmony platform like Alexa does. I was also disappointed at how unreliable Cortana was when it connected to my Philips Hue smart lights. At first, it had no problem turning lights on and off, or changing scene colors. Several hours later, though, it stopped working entirely. Resetting my Hue Hub and all of my settings didn't help; it's as if Cortana got into a fight with Philips and refused to talk to my lights anymore. I'll chalk this up to growing pains for now, but I hope Microsoft irons out these issues soon.

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

Since Amazon has had a head start in the smart speaker arena, it's managed to get developers aboard faster. Altogether, they've built more than 20,000 Alexa skills. Microsoft only opened up Cortana's Skills API in May, and it launched with just 46. That number is growing, but it has a long way to go before it catches up to Alexa.

One unique feature the Invoke offers is Skype calling. You can call other Skype users directly, along with normal phone numbers in your contacts and local businesses. When I asked it to call my friend, it found the appropriate contact and dialed the number without issue. He was able to hear me clearly, but he noted that it sounded like a speakerphone. While you can make calls to other Alexa users with an Echo, that's not nearly as convenient as ringing a normal phone. Amazon's Echo Connect changes that a bit, but it requires a landline. Unfortunately, while you can pair your devices with the Invoke over Bluetooth for music playback, you can't use it as a speakerphone when it's connected to your smartphone. (But that's something the Echo can't do either.)

Pricing and the competition

The Invoke's $199 price puts it at twice the price of the new Echo, and $50 more than the smart home hub-equipped Echo Plus. It's also significantly more than the $129 Google Home. Still, it's cheaper than Apple's $349 HomePod, which is also aiming for high-quality sound.

Really, though, your choice with all of these smart speakers really comes down to which ecosystem you want to be a part of. If you want something that works with the most services possible, than Amazon's Echo line makes more sense. Android fanatics might be better off with Google Home and its integration with that company's virtual assistant. Logically, you can assume the Invoke works best for Windows users. And while that's true, it's also a compelling option for anyone who values music quality. With Cortana available on iOS and Android, you don't need a Windows PC to take advantage of this speaker.

Wrap-up

The Invoke is great piece of hardware hamstrung by Cortana's fledgling ecosystem. It could get better over time, but most consumers would likely be better off with a competing smart speaker that might not sound as good, but can do much more. But if Cortana catches up and the Invoke's price goes down, it could end up being a truly compelling smart speaker for music lovers.


Designing the technology of ‘Blade Runner 2049’

This article contains spoilers for 'Blade Runner 2049'

There's a scene in Blade Runner 2049 that takes place in a morgue. K, an android "replicant" played by Ryan Gosling, waits patiently while a member of the Los Angeles Police Department inspects a skeleton. The technician sits at a machine with a dial, twisting it back and forth to move an overhead camera. There are two screens, positioned vertically, that show the bony remains with a light turquoise tinge. Only parts of the image are in focus, however. The rest is fuzzy and indistinct, as if someone smudged the lens and never bothered to wipe it clean.

Before leaving the room, K asks if he can take a closer look. The blade runner -- someone whose task it is to hunt older replicants -- dances over the controls, hunting for a clue. As he zooms in, the screen changes in a circular motion, as if a series of lenses or projector slides are falling into place. Before long, K finds what he's looking for: A serial code, suggesting the skeleton was a replicant built by the now defunct Tyrell Corporation.

Throughout the movie, K visits a laboratory where artificial memories are made; an LAPD facility where replicant code, or DNA, is stored on vast pieces of ticker tape; and a vault, deep inside the headquarters of a private company, that stores the results of replicant detection 'Voight-Kampff' tests. In each scene, technology or machinery is used as a plot device to push the larger narrative forward. Almost all of these screens were crafted, at least in part, by a company called Territory Studios.

The London-based outfit is known for developing on-set graphics. These are screens, or visuals, that the actor can see and, depending on the scene, physically interact with during a shoot. They have the potential to raise an actor's performance while creating interesting shadows and reflections on camera. Each one also gives the director more freedom in the editing room. If you have a screen on set, you can shoot a scene from multiple angles and freely compare them during the edit. The alternative -- tailoring bespoke graphics for specific shots -- is a time-consuming process if the director suddenly decides to change perspective in a scene.

Territory has worked on a bevy of science-fiction films including Ex Machina, The Martian and Guardians of the Galaxy. One of its earliest and most prolific projects was Prometheus, the divisive Alien prequel directed by Ridley Scott in 2012. The team was hired to design the computers and screens inside the titular spaceship, which is ultimately overrun by an alien virus. The bridge, the medical area, the ship's escape pods -- Territory designed them all. In post, the company also handled the crew's hypersleep chambers, medical tablets and the HUD system that wraps around their POV helmet-cam feeds.

During the project, Territory worked with Paul Inglis, the film's senior art director, and Arthur Max, the production designer. Years later, David Sheldon-Hicks, co-founder and creative director at Territory, was talking on the phone with Max about Alien: Covenant. Instead, Max suggested that he reach out to Inglis about Blade Runner 2049. "So I dropped him an email," Sheldon-Hicks recalled, "and said, 'If you're on the project I think you're on, I will give you my right arm to put us on there.'" Inglis laughed and told him that unfortunately, Territory would have to go through a three-way bid for the contract.

It was a big moment. The original Blade Runner is considered by many to be the greatest sci-fi film ever released. Directed by Scott in 1982, it stars Harrison Ford, fresh off The Empire Strikes Back, as retired police officer Rick Deckard. He's forced to resume his role as a blade runner, tracking down a group of replicants who have fled to Earth from their lives off-world.

Blade Runner is a beautiful noir film filled with rain and neon lights. Based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep, it explores some heavy themes, such as what it means to be human, the importance of memories and how our obsession with technology could lead to societal and environmental decay. Critics had mixed reactions upon its release, but over time, the film's reputation has grown to the point where it's now considered a classic.

Blade Runner 2049 was, therefore, a huge creative gamble. Territory was awarded the contract in March 2016, before director Denis Villeneuve had released his award-winning sci-fi movie Arrival. The French Canadian was highly regarded, however, for his work on Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario. He had proven his ability to make powerful, thoughtful and visually stunning movies. Still, the stakes were enormous. So much time had passed since the original Blade Runner, and so many movies had riffed or expanded upon its ideas. To succeed, Blade Runner 2049 would need to be something special.

Peter Eszenyi was Territory's creative lead on Blade Runner 2049. He joined the company in 2011 to help Sheldon-Hicks with some idents for Virgin Atlantic's in-flight entertainment system. Eszenyi quickly moved on to movies, however, helping the team create computer screens, drone footage and satellite imagery for the 2012 political thriller Zero Dark Thirty. He's since worked on Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel's Avengers: Age of Ultron and the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, to name just a few.

Peter Eszenyi, Territory Studio's creative lead on Blade Runner 2049.

The company's work on Blade Runner 2049 started with a few cryptic calls. They were "terribly hard," Eszenyi recalled, because the film's producers were so secretive about the project. Territory was given a vague list of screens, or sets, that the studio thought they could help with. One line just read "K Spinner," for instance. But when Eszenyi asked for more information, the answer would always be the same: "No" or "We can't tell you." Despite the lack of information, Territory started working on mood boards, trusting that some eventual feedback would steer them in the right direction.

Inside the company, Eszenyi and Sheldon-Hicks were joined by creative director Andrew Popplestone, producer Genevieve McMahon and motion designer Ryan Rafferty-Phelan. (The team would scale up to 10 during the project, but these five were the core.) Together, they started looking for inspiration. The film's producers had given them one critical detail about the world: a massive, cataclysmic event had occurred since the previous film, wiping out most forms of modern technology. Blade Runner 2049 would still feature computers and screens, however. It was, therefore, Territory's job to help figure out what that meant and what everything would look like.

Inspiration came from all sorts of places. "It might be something you see in a shop window," Popplestone said. "You might be walking around here and see a piece of furniture that's made out of glass, or a sculpture, something like that." The team found a lot, unsurprisingly, online. They scoured Pinterest and other sites for interesting sculptures and photography. Slowly, they curated their images into themes, or ideas, that could be organized as Pinterest boards. The team would then get together and chat face-to-face, discussing their ideas before breaking off and pulling together more reference points.

"I vividly remember debating bacteria," Eszenyi said. "'Can they use certain types of bacteria to create green colors. Or blue ones?" They thought about jellyfish that often wash ashore and turn everything a startling shade of blue. Could they be harnessed somehow to create a primitive color display? How would that work? At one point they were imagining bacteria that could be genetically engineered to change color. They thought about computers that could excite them to trigger a color-switch, thereby altering the image. But then there was the screen. "Would this display be fast enough to be usable?" Eszenyi asked. "Or would it be a slow-changing kind of thing?"

A month later, four of the Territory team visited Budapest, Hungary, where most of Blade Runner 2049 was being shot. For Eszenyi, it was a surreal experience. He grew up in Hungary and remembers watching Blade Runner in secondary school. In particular, he recalled the sweeping, electronic score by Vangelis and his literature teacher gushing over the ending with replicant Roy Batty, played by Rutger Hauer.

David Sheldon-Hicks, co-founder and creative director at Territory Studios.

With mood boards in hand, the Territory team were guided through studio security and into a meeting room with a table and a TV at the far end. It was completely empty, so the group started chatting amongst themselves. Then, suddenly, people started shuffling in. "We didn't realise that, one, we'd meet Denis, or that he'd be there," Popplestone recalled, "and, two, that it was going to be the entire visual effects team, and the producers as well." Ten or 12 people in total took a seat. Then they all turned and looked at Popplestone. "So I was like, 'Okay then!,'" he recalled. "Here's what we've got..."

But the team needn't have worried. Denis was warm but direct with his feedback. If something caught his eye, he would probe Territory about its meaning and how the group might develop the idea further. "It was always, 'I like *this* because of *this*,'" Eszenyi said. "What would you want to do with this? Where do you want to take it from here?" Some concepts he dismissed immediately, however. Eszenyi, for instance, liked an artist who had drawn illustrations for the Soviet-era space program. Beautiful illustrations of quiet, analog vessels from the 1970s and '80s. But they didn't match up with Villeneuve's vision.

The director disliked anything that felt too modern or sophisticated. If you could imagine it in a Marvel movie, for instance, he wasn't interested. But if it looked optical, like a microscope or a projector, he took notice. Glass, lenses and harsh lighting. Villeneuve also leaned toward nature; images that felt organic and abstract. "The whole point of the story is that we don't have digital-based technology," Popplestone said. "So he wanted something that was completely removed from that."

Before heading home, Territory visited the art department on set. The team was also given permission to step inside production designer Dennis Gassner's room, which was filled with concept art and storyboards. At last, the group felt like they had a good grasp of the movie and the world Villeneuve was trying to build.

Back in England, Territory refined its ideas. At its Farringdon office, the team experimented with physical props and filming techniques. They tried shooting through a projector to see how different lenses would warp the final image. The group took macro photographs of fruit, including a half-eaten grape that someone had left in the office. Eszenyi even looked at photogrammetry, a technique that uses multiple photographs and specialized algorithms to build 3D models. It's been used before to recreate real-life locations, such as Mount Everest, in VR and video games.

Territory Studios' creative director Andrew Popplestone.

"It was almost like being back at university again," Popplestone said. The group operated like art students, experimenting with techniques that might produce abstract images or textures. A meeting room was eventually dedicated to the project, which the film's producers had code-named Triboro. "We just gave up on meetings," Sheldon-Hicks said. "The project took priority."

Eszenyi also became quite friendly with his local butcher. An assortment of "meat-based stuff," including pig's eyes started to gather in the office fridge, much to Sheldon-Hicks' displeasure. "I was like, 'Seriously, I'm getting takeaway for the next few weeks. I'm not going in there. It's horrible,'" he recalled with a chuckle.

Blade Runner 2049 was challenging because it required Territory to think about complete systems. They were envisioning not only screens, but the machines and parts that would made them work.

With this in mind, the team considered a range of alternate display technologies. They included e-ink screens, which use tiny microcapsules filled with positive and negatively charged particles, and microfiche sheets, an old analog format used by libraries and other archival institutions to preserve old paper documents. When the group was ready to present its new ideas, it was Inglis, rather than Villeneuve, that looked everything over and provided feedback. Inglis was working closely with the director and was, therefore, familiar with his ideas and preferences.

Slowly, Territory narrowed its focus. The team started shaping its abstract ideas into assets, or screens, that could be formally presented to Inglis and the rest of the film's producers. Around this time, the studio gained proper access to the art department and received a full breakdown of the work that needed to be completed. The team switched to Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator for its designs, applying animation in After Effects and professional 3D modelling software Cinema 4D.

"As soon as anything got too clean, or too fine, it was instantly going down the wrong direction," Popplestone said. The team created and curated libraries of textures and optical, line-based layers inspired by its real-world experiments. Distortion, warping and other artificial techniques were used to give the screens a grubby but beautiful look.

Territory was eventually given permission to read the script. The team had to fly to Hungary, however, to skim through the pages in an isolation chamber. "I had roughly half an hour to read the script," Eszenyi recalled. As such, he only had a rough idea of how the different sets and story sequences fitted together. Back in London, the team would constantly ask each other what they remembered from their brief time with the script. Thankfully, Inglis was always available to confirm anything they had forgotten.

"He was the arbiter of all information," Popplestone said.

Near the end of the film, Deckard is handcuffed and bundled into a large spinner, which the team calls the Limo. It's owned by Wallace Corporation and is, therefore, a luxurious vehicle. Up front, barely in shot, you can see the pilot and a few screens with monochromatic designs. They're simple, sophisticated screens, conveying information with minimal dots and triangles.

That same design language can be seen inside the rest of the Wallace Corporation. It's a sparse but immediately recognisable look. Territory's goal was to build something that felt like Wallace's own, personalized operating system. So specialized, in fact, that Wallace wouldn't require the usual labels and iconography found on mass-market platforms like Windows and MacOS. It was designed for him, and is, therefore, supposed to be an extension of his tastes.

Wallace's employees, of course, aren't Wallace. So the implication is that everyone inside the company is using an operating system designed for someone else. "It speaks of corporate arrogance and confidence," Sheldon-Hicks said. "And a power that is beyond needing to worry about the masses."

The LAPD is a little different. K reports to Lieutenant Joshi, played by Robin Wright. The monitors in her office are chunky and the screens have a blue tinge to them. They're functional and better than what most of the public has access to, but a far cry from what Wallace Corporation uses. It's a reflection of how law enforcement and emergency services are run currently. The UK's National Health Service, for instance, still uses Windows XP. Police often have to wait to acquire new technology for their department.

Layering that context into screen designs can be tricky. The technology had to look outdated for 2049, but given the time period, also relatively futuristic. "It's old technology compared to Wallace," Popplestone explained, "but it's still advanced for us. So we had to make it look modern and more advanced than what we've got, yet still somehow slightly knackered and dilapidated."

Territory also had to be mindful of the original film and the off-screen events that Villeneuve had envisioned between 2019 and 2049. It was a relatively straightforward task; the sheer length of time and the cataclysmic event (partly explored in the Black Out 22 short by Shinichiro Watanabe) meant there was little the team had to reference or honor. That was by design. Villeneuve wanted a world "reset," so everyone on the project could freely explore new ideas. The film has Spinners, rain-soaked cities, and Deckard's iconic blaster, but otherwise there's little in the way of technological tissue.

"It was a completely clean slate," Eszenyi said.

Almost every screen Territory produced serves a specific purpose in the story. They help K uncover a new clue, or learn something interesting about another character. But each one also says something more about the world of Blade Runner 2049. What's common or unusual for people in different jobs and social classes. They hint at the state of the economy, the rate of innovation and how the development of artificial intelligence -- replicant and otherwise -- is affecting people's relationships and behavior with technology.

"It's a much more subtle, contextual narrative," Popplestone said.

Take the market. Partway through the movie K stands in the middle of a square, contemplating a series of photos. The film is focused on these images, but in the background you can see large, illuminated food adverts. They're square in shape, doubling as buttons that dispense orders like a giant gumball machine. Up above, animated banners advertise Coca-Cola and other food and drink products. It's one of the few times Territory designed graphics that didn't have a specific story function. They're still a point of interest, however, providing a rare look at how people live in this future version of Los Angeles.

Territory also had to think about how its screens would look in relation to the camera. Some were filmed up close, while others were only visible in the background. It was important, therefore, that designs were readable at different distances. To test this, the team constantly squashed and scaled up its graphics to see what they would look like on screen. "Does it have the detail to have a close lens on it? And can you go wide, and blur it out, and still read it?" Sheldon-Hicks said.

When a computer or machine is shown on film, it needs to be believable. Sometimes, a static display will do. But others require animation and multiple screens, or loops, to be chained together. Early in the movie, for instance, K steps into his personal Spinner. The screens lining the dashboard change as a call from Joshi comes in, and K scans the eyeball of a replicant he was hunting earlier. These are subtle, but necessary transitions to sell the idea that the vehicle is real.

Every shot was different, but generally Territory provided screens with an initial state, an action state, and then a looping state. Some screens had additional action states, if they were required to pull off a particular sequence. The different states were then triggered by actors or production staff on cue.

Territory could, in theory, design and code full-blown applications. But for a movie like Blade Runner, that would be a costly and time-consuming process. After all, a screen is largely redundant once the scene has been shot. There are also the practicalities of shooting a movie. An actor's focus is already split between the lights, the camera, the lines they need to remember, and the positioning of other cast members. If a screen or prop isn't simple, it could affect their focus and the overall quality of the performance.

Territory's graphics also have to serve the dialogue, changing with a certain rhythm or when particular lines are delivered. When Luv was looking for K's location, for instance, there needed to be a search tool, followed by a map that clearly showed his whereabouts. In the real world, you would probably get the following confirmation or prompt in Google Maps: "by The Cosmopolitan, did you mean...?" In a film, however, where pacing is critical, these intermediary screens are unnecessary and detract from the film's entertainment value.

"There are these push and pull factors of narrative versus reality," Sheldon-Hicks said. "You don't want to completely break away from reality. So we're always treading this line, or threading this needle on set in quite a tricky way."

Territory sent Rafferty-Phelan to Hungary to provide support while the movie was being filmed. There, he could answer questions and make last-minute changes required by Villeneuve or anyone else on set. These are normally small: sometimes the lighting is different than the team expected, or the director asks if some text can be adjusted. If the edits are minor, they can often be done on location by a member of the Territory team, avoiding difficult delays in shooting or expensive tweaks in post.

For Sheldon-Hicks, there's another reason to send his employees out on location. They're building a relationship with the director, who might want to work with them again in the future. It's also an opportunity for the company to collaborate and learn from some of the best creative talents in the industry. "It's like free training for me," he said. "I'm being paid to send my team out and see how Scott or Villeneuve tells a story. Of course I'm going to send them out." The more talented and experienced Territory becomes, the more likely it is to win contracts in the future.

Territory strives to deliver screens that can be shot with a camera on set. But there's always a chance something will need to be changed in post. Some films require extensive reshoots long after Territory has wrapped up its work on set. Other times, the film requires a particular look, or flourish, that simply isn't possible with current technology. Every project is different. On The Martian, for instance, Scott was able to shoot almost everything in camera. "The whole thing just went through in lens, done," Sheldon-Hicks recalls. Ex Machina, directed by Alex Garland, was the same.

Territory has been hired in the past to work on films, such as Ghost in the Shell, while they were in post-production. That means delivering concepts or assets that can be added to the movie after shooting has wrapped. With Blade Runner 2049, however, the company's work was finished once the cameras had stopped rolling. The team provided some resources so that other companies could tweak their work in post, but otherwise, its work was done.

Handing over control can be difficult, but it's all part of the filmmaking process. "There's just nothing you can do about it," Sheldon-Hicks said. "You know that they're all working to make the work better, and you don't want your graphics to look beautiful but be in a movie that sucks. So we all kind of accept that."

Eszenyi is "pretty sure" that parts of the morgue sequence were changed in post. It was a highly choreographed scene, with multiple props and screens, so the odds of a post-shot tweak were higher than other scenes in the movie. Still, it gave the actors real, visual cues to act off, and a basis for the graphical adjustment in post. So it's not like Territory's efforts were wasted. Even so, the team felt a mixture of emotions when they watched the first trailer in December last year. "It's like, yeah, that's my kid," Eszenyi explained, "but she's not two years old anymore, she's 18."

Blade Runner 2049 is a beautiful movie. The gloom of downtown Los Angeles and the harsh, radioactive wasteland of Las Vegas clash with the design decadence of Wallace Corp and the steely cold of K's apartment. The film's visual prowess can and should be attributed to cinematographer Roger Deakins and everyone who worked on the sets, costumes and visual effects. Territory's contributions can't be understated, however. By blurring the line between technological fantasy and reality, the team has made it easier to believe in a world filled bioengineered androids. Which is pretty cool for any fan of science fiction cinema.


Images: Alcon Entertainment (Blade Runner 2049); Nick Summers (photography)


Warriors, Cavaliers owners buy into ‘League of Legends’ series

As eSports has grown into the arena-filling behemoth it is today, traditional sports has been clamouring for a stake. Talent has been snapped up, tournaments established, and multi-million dollar investments made. The trend looks set to continue with news that two of the NBA's biggest rivals are jumping on the competitive gaming bandwagon. ESPN is reporting that the Cleveland Cavaliers have nabbed a spot in the North American League of Legends Championship (LCS).

They join the Golden State Warriors, whose owner Joe Lacob (along with son Kirk) splurged $13 million on an LCS franchise last week. That's the asking price for a new spot in the championship, whereas existing teams must fork out $10 million. And, if the latest reports are to be believed, FlyQuest (the team backed by Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Wes Edens) will be shelling out that sum for a permanent place in the LCS next year.

It may sound like the NBA is taking over, but it's left room for others to squeeze into. On Thursday, the New York Yankees acquired a stake in Echo Fox, the eSports franchise owned by NBA alum Rick Fox. The deal forms part of a bigger partnership with Vision eSports, giving the Yankees a stake in an "ecosystem" of eSports properties, including a stats company and a content production outfit. On the flip side, the investment should help toward Echo Fox's franchise fee too.

Source: ESPN (1), (2), New York Yankees (Twitter)


‘The Walking Dead’ VR scene puts you in the shoes of a walker

Would you submerge yourself in a fear-inducing virtual setting overrun by zombies? That's the world The Walking Dead has expertly crafted during its seven-year run, and now AMC is inviting you to step into it, courtesy of its VR app. You can grab it for iOS, Android, Samsung Gear VR, and Google Daydream right now, but the real fun begins on Sunday. Directly after the show's 100th episode, the network is dropping an exclusive VR scene.

The immersive experience will put you in the action from both sides. You'll start off trapped in an abandoned car waiting for help to arrive as the walkers inch ever closer. If that doesn't sound terrifying enough, you'll also get to join the herd and feast in the carnage. Once you get your fill of claustrophobic horror, you can peruse the extras, including trailers and features from that other AMC show Into the Badlands. The network is also promising to keep the app stocked with virtual experiences for the foreseeable future.

The AMC VR app follows the announcement of The Walking Dead: Our World -- an augmented reality game coming soon to iOS and Android. The two combined should turn you into a regular zombie-slaying survivalist.


Marvel and Netflix’s ‘The Punisher’ will debut November 17th

Marvel and its distinguished competitor will go head-to-head this fall. But rather than the brawl playing out at comic book shops, the venues will be your living room and local multiplex. Netflix has revealed that its latest Marvel superhero antihero series The Punisher will arrive on November 17th. As Polygon notes, that's the same day that Justice League premieres in theaters.

The titular Punisher, real name Frank Castle, previously made a standout appearance in Marvel's Daredevil series, and the actor who portrays him, Jon Bernthal, is a staple on The Walking Dead. Netflix began teasing the show last April. DC, on the other hand, began running trailers for Justice League this summer.

The difference is that DC's cinematic universe has been incredibly shaky following tepid receptions to Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad last year. This summer's Wonder Woman started turning the tide, however, but it's anyone's guess if Justice League will keep the momentum going. In comparison, Marvel's Netflix shows -- Iron Fist aside -- have all been pretty well received.

It'll probably be difficult to tell what, if any, impact The Punisher will have on Justice League's opening box office weekend, but you can guarantee internet fanboys will have opinions about it either way. The rational among us will just watch both. A new trailer featuring Metallica's anti-war anthem "One" is embedded below.

Via: Polygon

Source: Netflix (YouTube)


‘Aztez’: The bloody indie brawler that should’ve been big

Imagine: It's 2012 and Matthew Wegner is sitting at his desk in the back of a one-bedroom apartment in Tempe, Arizona, pounding away at a keyboard. It's night but thick black drapes are pulled over the window; the room is suffused with dim yellow light, casting sickly shadows over the papers tacked to the walls. Most of them are emblazoned with the name Aztez, depicting bloody battles among ancient Aztec warriors. Wegner's fingers fall still as he closes a line of code and reviews his work. His computer hums, hot.

A ball of blinding white light suddenly explodes in the middle of the room, shooting sparks to the ceiling and singeing the carpet -- Wegner jumps up and stares, wide-eyed, at the intrusion. As the glare fades, a familiar shape emerges. Wegner is looking at himself: a little older, a little more weathered, but definitely himself.

"Don't do Aztez!" the second Wegner says, frantic. "I'm you from five years in the future. Trust me, stop working on this game. It doesn't go well."

The original Wegner finds his voice. "But everyone says it's going to be great! We already have a lot of buzz."

"It's a trap. Quit Aztez. Now!" The light returns and swiftly envelops the second Wegner before popping out of existence entirely. His final words reverberate around the tiny, smoking room. Wegner blinks and shakes away his shock. He pulls out his chair and sits down. Moments later, his fingers are flying over the keyboard again, coding combat combos into Aztez.

"If, five years ago, future-me were to teleport into the room and be like, 'I'm Matthew from the future -- Aztez, just get off of it, don't do it,' I'd probably still finish it," Wegner says, back in the real world.

"Yeah, I would too," his partner, Ben Ruiz, agrees. Ruiz and Wegner are the founding (and only) members of Team Colorblind, an independent game-development studio based in the Phoenix area. Their first game, Aztez, hit Steam in August after seven years of work and five years of positive public attention. It's a stylish brawler with deep strategy elements set in the ancient Aztec empire, featuring black-and-white environments splattered with bright red blood.

During development, Ruiz and Wegner rode a rising wave of love for indie games, as consumers discovered the depth of experiences available outside of the big-budget, DLC-obsessed, AAA marketplace. They rode that indie wave until it crashed. It's difficult to say exactly when, because they didn't feel the impact -- they were trapped in a development bubble, building a game that the media, their friends and fellow developers all said would perform wonderfully once it was out in the wild.

At least, that's what they said five years ago.

The video game industry evolves rapidly, constantly adopting new technologies and taking advantage of fresh distribution methods. As Team Colorblind continued to work, the indie market lost its new-toy sheen and became an established, overcrowded haven for anyone with GameMaker and an idea.

"If I was paying attention to Steam, maybe I wouldn't be so blindsided by what happened, but I'm also not necessarily sure what I would've done differently," Ruiz says. "If I'd have known like, oh, it's a saturated market now -- what the fuck do you do?"

After seven years, Aztez emerged from its development bubble -- and it bombed. This time around, Ruiz and Wegner definitely felt the impact.

"Fucking madness," Ruiz says.

The method

Ruiz chose Aztez's release date extremely carefully. He knew they didn't want to launch during the holiday season, which is generally dominated by the AAA money machine, so he looked at the summer. He scoured the charts of upcoming Steam releases, searching for a day without any big-name games. August 1st looked good. He locked it in.

"There were 40 other games that launched on August 1st," Wegner says. One of those games was Slime Rancher, an adorable first-person title that had generated a rabid fanbase while it was still in Early Access. Another was Tacoma, the new game from the team behind indie darling Gone Home. Neither of these had shown up on the new-release charts Ruiz had studied.

"If I would've seen Slime Rancher, I would've been like fuck it, we're going to wait a month," Ruiz says. "Because there's no reason to compete with that."

Slime Rancher didn't single-handedly destroy Aztez's chances at success. However, with 39 other new games also hitting Steam that day, it was difficult for any title to truly stand out. Even an eye-catching brawler with a notable amount of name recognition.

This is a different world than the one Ruiz and Wegner operated in when they started working on Aztez in 2010. Back then, Steam was a curated space, where employees worked directly with developers to approve their games and get them on the store. A handful of titles went live every week and indie developers lucky enough to secure a Steam deal could generally bank on that release to see them through the fiscal year. Getting on Steam was like hitting the jackpot.

That changed in 2012. Indie games were all the rage, development tools were becoming increasingly accessible, and there were hundreds of new titles ready to be distributed every day. Steam set up Greenlight, a system where players themselves approved indie games for the store, and Early Access, where developers could publish games-in-progress for community feedback, allowing them to feed the hype beast from day one.

Meanwhile, Ruiz and Wegner continued working on Aztez, heads down, not paying much attention to the wider marketplace as it tilted around them. They had five years to go. Today, Greenlight is dead, but the Early Access model has spread to other platforms, including consoles.

"It's almost like in the last five years, everyone was on Steam, and then it refractured and the consoles got markets back again," Ruiz says. "Five years ago everyone was on Steam because new consoles would come out and they were like $1,000, right? So, it's just this sin wave apparently, because it's like oh yeah, that's what happened with the previous generation, too."

This tug-of-war between Steam and consoles continues today. Right now, it feels like there's more opportunity for indie games to succeed on the PlayStation 4 or Switch ("They don't say Xbox One. I don't think anyone owns those," Ruiz adds) than Steam. However, PS4 has been the reigning indie hub for a few years and its dominance might be coming to an end. Managerial shakeups have recently altered the company's approach to smaller studios -- Sony is losing the indie market and the Switch alone can't support this ecosystem on behalf of all three major consoles. The momentum is poised to shift back toward Steam any time now, but the platform still has to deal with its oversaturation problem.

"I think we came out on the bad part of that rollercoaster, because you know, there's a billion indie games that come out on Steam every single day," Ruiz says.

Ruiz and Wegner aren't making any money on Aztez and they've started picking up contract work again to pay the bills.

Back in 2010, they worked on the game exclusively on nights and weekends, but they managed to secure some investors early on and Ruiz has been building Aztez full-time since then. Wegner continued doing contract work and focused on the game in his spare time -- over the past year, however, Wegner was full-time on Aztez as well.

Colorblind has to repay its investors before they see a cent out of Aztez. So far, they've sold roughly 2,000 copies of the game across Steam and other, smaller distributors. It sells for $20 when it's not on sale.

"We have no money coming to us until we pay that back," Wegner says. "Which is super frustrating, because if you sell two copies a day on Steam, you're making $1,000 a month after Steam's cut. If you sell 10 copies a day you're making $5,000 a month."

All of that cash -- real and potential -- is being funneled to Aztez's investors for now.

"It'll make money eventually," Wegner says. "Funny thing is like, I'm 37, and I'll be probably in my 40s, like, oh, Aztez made me some money, that's cool."

"Oh no," Ruiz laments.

"Then I'll put it towards my medical class for being a 40 year old."

"I'm 33," Ruiz says. "I might be in my 40s when Aztez makes some money."

Ruiz and Wegner did a lot of things right when it comes to savvy indie distribution -- Ruiz sent out press releases, published YouTube videos and got some high-profile streamers to play Aztez -- but they were a few years behind the market. They launched on Steam when consoles might have been a better move.

Now, they're working on PS4, Xbox One and Switch versions of the game. Aztez is actually running on all of those platforms, but it probably won't launch until early next year, after the holiday rush.

By that time, it's hard to say where the market's energy will be. Aztez could easily miss out on the current console bubble, too. For instance, plenty of players today are excited about indie games on the Switch, but there's no telling how long that interest will last.

"Maybe by the time we launch on Switch, you know, in whatever January, February, we will also be amongst the crowd again," Ruiz says.

Ruiz and Wegner know all it takes is one good day to set Aztez on the path of financial solvency, and they know the console releases could be major. They're also painfully aware all of their plans could fail spectacularly. It's a tense waiting game.

"We're in the part of the metaphor where, like, we hit the other car or the boundary, and flew out the windshield, and our faces and arms just ate street," Ruiz says. "I kind of feel like we're still in the street. So intellectually it's like OK, we're alive, I know we'll be alive, this isn't going to kill us. ... I know we're going to be okay, but everything blows right now. Just blood everywhere, like oh, dang it."

Ruiz and Wegner may be disappointed, bleeding and sore -- but they're not defeated.

"Some day, there could be the spark that becomes the fire, and all of the sudden it gets into the right hands, and then the conversation starts and then it's like oh, fuck," Ruiz says. "We sold 10,000 units today and we did the next day, and then all of a sudden we're a normal, successful game developer. That could happen at any time. But the fact that that is the nature of the universe is just torture. Because every day it doesn't happen. And you know it's not going to happen. ... Once the consoles are done I'm going to be relieved to let that fall out of my brain. But as long as that's in the future I can't abandon it, I can't abandon the idea that like, oh, it might turn around."