<p>Has anyone checked a telescope today to make sure Jupiter doesn't look like this?&nbsp;</p>

Has anyone checked a telescope today to make sure Jupiter doesn't look like this? 

Credit: MGM Home Video

QuickFix: '2010' On BluRay and some New Year's Resolutions

In which we kick off the year we make contact... in style

Hey, guys... Happy New Year.

"My God... it's full of stars!"

Like many people, I look at the New Year as a chance to start things anew, to assess the way I've been doing things and look for ways to do things better.  In particular, I want to post more here on the blog.  A LOT MORE. And in order to do so, I can't approach each piece as a small novel, which has always been my habit.  Harry Knowles used to joke and refer to me as "one of THOSE comic book artists," which stings but which also seems fairly accurate.  I would imagine that if Greg Ellwood's hair begins to thin any time soon, part of it is because of all the times he's snatched it out waiting on me to finish something, hoping for more content.

One of the things I want to do this year is try to share thoughts on everything I watch.  I've been asked over and over how many movies I actually watch during a year, and when, and how I manage to fit them all in.  The truth is, I almost always have something playing.  There are days where that's not true, and days where it feels like it's one right after another after another.  Not everything deserves a full review.  Some films have been written about endlessly, by myself or by others, and it seems like there's nothing worth saying about them, and other films aren't easily digested and I don't have something immediate to say.  But that ends up being a cop-out sometimes because I never come back to them.

So this year, I'm instigating what we'll call the "QuickFix" here on the blog, where after I watch a movie... after I watch every single movie I watch... I'll offer up a short reaction or a take or a thought... just something that marks the passage.  And I figured there was no better way to kickstart both the series and the year than by watching the Peter Hyams film "2010: The Year We Make Contact."

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<p>Picking memorable moments from the best films of the last decade is easy, but only being able to include a handful is the hard part. &nbsp;Can you name them all?&nbsp;</p>

Picking memorable moments from the best films of the last decade is easy, but only being able to include a handful is the hard part.  Can you name them all? 

The M/C Decade List: The 50 Best Films Of The 00's

Looking back, counting down, and picking the big winners

Okay... making a ten best list was fun, especially since I got to technically cram in 25 films.

That was all for one year, 2009, which was a darn fine year of film overall, if not one for the record books. That list, though, was just a warm-up for the big list, in which we break down the 50 best films of the past ten years.

Yes, calendar nerds.  I know.  In your reality, all decades refer to something starting a year that ends in a 1. But I am not talking about an astronomically-calculated decade.  I'm talking about the period of ten years that started on January 1, 2000, and which will end in about eight days.  That's the decade we're looking at, and that pretty much every sane person on the planet understands as a given in this conversation.

There's a top ten, and I'm surprised how quickly it shook itself out.  I feel pretty strongly about it, too.

The others on the list were grouped and regrouped and regrouped, and finally I feel like the list represents a real x-ray of the decade, and what kept me engaged over the last ten years.  Because let's face it... anyone who really loves movies could look at the last ten years of film on the surface and be stricken with a crippling despair.  The studios are, more than ever, churning out garbage that defies description.  The trend to remake the remakes of the remakes while also rebooting the sequel to the prequels to the reimagining of the homage is enough to make you wish celluloid had never been invented.

You have to look deeper than that into the last ten years, and you have to consider just how many really remarkable films have come out, and from how many different countries and cultures, and then maybe it's easier to get your head around just how many good things we've been gifted with in the last decade. 

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<p>Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. both cranked up the charm in Shane Black's awesome buddy comedy mystery 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang'&nbsp;</p>

Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. both cranked up the charm in Shane Black's awesome buddy comedy mystery 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' 

Credit: Warner Bros.

The M/C Decade List #20 - #11: Broken hearts, hammer fights, and Robert Downey Jr.

Ambitious visions from Peter Weir, Quentin Tarantino, Stephen Chow and Baz Luhrmann crowd the list

For a full description of the purpose and the parameters of this list, read the introduction.

You can read #50 - #41 here.

 
 
#20 / "Zodiac"
 
It makes sense that David Fincher would be the guy to take a shot at telling the definitive story of the Zodiac Killer and the panic he inspired, since Fincher's brain is wired in the same obsessive, meticulous way that serial killers' brains are.  This is a movie that offers up an unbelievably dense tapestry of detail, and that slowly but surely makes the viewer feel as lost in the weight of those details as the investigators who tried to catch the Zodiac in the first place.  His use of digital cameras, his attention to period accuracy, his choice of music, his casting choices... all of it adds up to the movie that, so far, represents the single best distillation of Fincher's gifts.  The fact that it's a cracking good procedural on top of that is just a bonus. Ultimately, I love this film because it reaches past any intellectual part of my film critic brain and just plain works for me as a fetish piece, an incredible technical and thematic work that represents one of our most prickly film wizards at his peak.
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Paranormal Activity DVD cover

You could win a copy of Paranormal Activity on Blu-ray.

Credit: Paramount Pictures

CONTEST: Want to win a BluRay copy of 'Paranormal Activity'?

The contest is now over, but you can still win in Paramount's Tweet Your Scream contest

People have accused me of trying to promote the BluRay format to the point of practically forcing it on people.

Well, that's exactly what we're here to do tonight.  We're going to give away five copies of "Paranormal Activity" on BluRay to you guys to help celebrate another unconventional audience participation idea by Paramount, and I'll tell you how you can win one in just a moment.

More and more, studios are using the BD Live features to host some very cool events where you can interact directly with the filmmakers, and today, Monday, December 28, 2009, you can participate in the Red Carpet Home Screening of the film by tuning in to www.twitter.com/TweetYourScream for live updates from the event, where Oren Peli and special guests will be in attendance.  This screening is the prize from an earlier contest, and Jessica DiMeo of Rehoboth, Mass. is the lucky person hosting that screening in her own home.

And starting at 12:01 on the 29th, and running for the next 24 hours, if you tweet to @TweetYourScream with the hashtag #UpAllNight, you could win two tickets to an upcoming Paramount premiere.  Cool, eh?

Here's how we're going to give our five discs away.  First you need to answer this question:

"How many paranormal investigators came to the house during the film to help Katie and Micah?"

If you're one of the first five people with the right answer, you win.

It really is just that simple.  Just like the Up All Night contest.  Eeeeeasy.  The contest is open to all US residents aged 18 or older, and you can see all the official rules and restrictions right here if you have any questions.

[Editor's note: This contest is now over with five confirmed winners.  Thanks to everyone who participated.]

And remember... "Paranormal Activity" arrives on DVD, BluRay, and digital download on December 29th, so if you don't win, make sure you pick one up.

Good luck.

 

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<p>The Joker (Heath Ledger) basks in the smell of chaos and carnage in Christoper Nolan's sleek and sublime 'The Dark Knight'&nbsp;</p>

The Joker (Heath Ledger) basks in the smell of chaos and carnage in Christoper Nolan's sleek and sublime 'The Dark Knight' 

Credit: Warner Bros.

The M/C Decade List #30 - 21: Batman, Miyazaki, and a vampire in love

French horror, an animated film no one's seen, and... more French horror?

For a full description of the purpose and the parameters of this list, read the introduction.

You can read #50 - #41 here.

#30 / "The Dark Knight"

Christopher Nolan isn't slumming it when he works in the mainstream superhero genre.  He treats Batman as an archetype worth serious exploration, and by adding The Joker and Two-Face into the mix, two of the richest of the Batman villains in terms of subtextual worth, he gives himself almost too much to juggle in one movie.  Thankfully, though, Nolan and his brother, along with David Goyer, found a way to balance all their big ideas while also telling a brutal crime story in which an entire city is a chessboard between two psychopaths, with one man willing to ruin his reputation and his own happiness to confound them.  Just as filmcraft, "The Dark Knight" is a mainstream marvel, but when you consider the way it twists superhero tropes while still playing by the rules, it's sort of amazing.  Even so, the thing that cements this as one of the moments of the decade, one of the most electrifying moments of recent cinema, was watching Heath Ledger throw down.  More than anything else he'd done, it was an announcement that he was ready to be a complete original, a major lifeforce unleashed on film.  It is appropriate that he took the Joker away from Jack Nicholson, whose hammy, slow-motion victory lap of a performance twenty years earlier was the previous public favorite interpretation, because Ledger's work here reminds me of the great work by the great guys of the '70s.  He was unfettered.  He was given permission by the role to go as far out as he could, and he flew.  Nolan was there with a camera to catch it.  That's the accidental beauty of film in general, the way these moments happen, these collisions of talent and opportunity and material, the thing that makes all movie junkies keep going back, chasing, and only occasionally getting something as right as this.  

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<p>Adam Sandler does his finest work in the nearly-experimental Paul Thomas Anderson comedy 'Punch-Drunk Love'&nbsp;</p>

Adam Sandler does his finest work in the nearly-experimental Paul Thomas Anderson comedy 'Punch-Drunk Love' 

Credit: Revolution Studios

The M/C Decade List #40 - #31: Russell Crowe, forgotten children, and Spike Lee

As the list continues, Seth and Evan and a bunch of Basterds join some international titles

For a full description of the purpose and the parameters of this list, read the introduction.

You can read #50 - #41 here.

#40 / "Gladiator"

I was indeed entertained.  Ridley Scott has made better films than "Gladiator," but he's rarely made more entertaining ones.  This film is a confident, well-armored machine, cutting down each and every potential objection to it with sheer brute charisma and visual panache, and the script's big mechanics click into place with precision, paying off every set-up just right.  This is not a film with the same sort of expansive soul as "Lawrence of Arabia," and I wouldn't say it's a truly deep epic.  It's an action film with just enough angst to make it count, and it proves that if Scott had just decided to be a mainstream action movie guy, he would have been one of the all-time greats.  Rewatching this one, removed from all the inevitable backlash and cynicism, I'm suddenly reminded of why I should care that Ridley Scott's making "Robin Hood" with Russell Crowe this summer.

#39 / "Tsotsi"

Before Gavin Hood became the director of the entirely style-less and corporate "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," he was the director of this gut-churning South African film about a tough street kid who steals a car and finds a baby in the back seat.  How he cares for the child is pretty much the entire narrative arc of the film, but on that simple thread is hung some amazingly powerful material about the meaning of caring for someone else, the responsibility of caring for a child, and the very nature of love.  "Tsotsi" is one of those films I can't explain on an intellectual level, because its power is as one of the great emotional sledgehammers of the decade.  I think more than anything, that's what will get a film a place on this list... connecting with me in a real way, making me feel something.  So many films are just product, no matter how professional, and what I find I value as I get older is identifying something in a film that strikes me as genuine.  That feeling is the drug I chase from film to film now, and "Tsotsi" delivers it, pure and uncut. 

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<p>Brad Pitt starred as one of the most famous outlaws in history in a piercing meditation on the price of fame in 'The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford'&nbsp;</p>

Brad Pitt starred as one of the most famous outlaws in history in a piercing meditation on the price of fame in 'The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford' 

Credit: Warner Bros.

The M/C Decade List: #50 - #41: Forgotten fantasy, fractured time, and Will Ferrell

Away we go with Cameron Crowe, Gaspar Noe, and, yes... Steve-O

For a full description of the purpose and the parameters of this list, read the introduction.

All lists must start somewhere, and after sorting through almost 1000 titles, I ended up with 260 serious finalists.  Those finalists were weighed, considered, and finally boiled down to only 50 titles, with no ties and no cheating.  And the first title on that list is...

#50 / "À l'intérieur" aka "Inside"

Yep.  I'm starting the countdown with an unapologetic horror film, one of the most upsetting I've seen in my 30-or-so years as a bloodthirsty horror fan.  A pregnant woman (Alysson Paradis) and her husband are in a terrible car accident, and he's killed.  Four months later, as she's in the final days of her pregnancy and alone, a strange... and I do mean strange... woman (Beatrice Dalle) comes knocking at her door in the middle of the night.  All she wants is the unborn baby, and she's willing to do anything to get her hands on it.  This is one of the most primal possible set-ups for a horror film, and Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury don't miss a trick, ratcheting up both the gore and the tension, step by nerve-wracking step.  Anyone can put a bunch of graphic images in a movie and call it a horror film, but what gives "Inside" its biggest, nastiest kick is the way the plot pulls all the threads together at the end and what seemed personal suddenly stands revealed as one of the most potent of the post-9/11 reminders that what we do in the world sometimes comes back to us in the form of terrifying, unrelenting violence, and that we sometimes inadvertently invite chaos and destruction into our lives, and once we do, there may be no way to make it stop.

#49 / "Jackass The Movie"

Reality television is slowly driving our entire culture insane, and "Jackass" is the only sane response.

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<p>A Na'vi heads into battle in a climactic scene created by WETA for James Cameron's 'Avatar'&nbsp;</p>

A Na'vi heads into battle in a climactic scene created by WETA for James Cameron's 'Avatar' 

Credit: 20th Century Fox/WETA

The M/C Interview, Part II: Joe Letteri, FX Supervisor on 'Avatar,' talks 'TinTin'

We discuss new technology, old tricks, and why WETA makes the best eyes

The conversation continues here exactly where it left off in part one of this interview.

DM:  Wow. Just throwing one of these technical challenges at you would make this a wildly difficult film, so I really can’t get my head around how you guys broke everything down.  One of the thing I’ve always hardest to pull off in effects is flight.  I think flight... there’s just something inherently fake about it on film.

JL:  Yeah.

DM:  I would say Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” got flight right, and for me Miyazaki in animation is one of the few guys who really gets it.

JL:  Sure, yeah.

DM:  I think he will love this film.  How did you approach that?

JL:  There’s a clue there in what you said.  Miyazaki has the edge.  If you’re not bound to what you’re doing physically… if you don’t have actors on wires, if you really can just make the characters fly and react to gravity the way they should if they were there, then you do have the ability to do it.  That’s one of the freedoms that you do want to have by doing it this way.  And that’s really what we were able to do because we weren’t locked down to pick points on a harness or anything else that normally defies what you’re trying to do by putting somebody on a riding rig.

DM:  It’s incredibly effective.  Is it a different process for you working in 3D?  Are there different things that you have to accomplish?  Or is it the same basic type of challenge and then just a rendering issue?

JL:  There’s a couple of things there.  If you’re looking at the 2D like the live-action side of it, yeah there’s a lot of harder work that goes into it, because things that used to be simple… not necessarily simple, but you know more straight-forward... like cleaning up wire rigs and things like that... in stereo, those are much more difficult to do because every pixel is a different point in space and you have to account for that in both eyes.  Over time, of course.  So that gets harder.  But from a straight rendering point of view, it gets… there’s more to do but conceptually all you’re doing is rendering everything from two different cameras.  Technically it’s actually not that hard other than figuring out how to deal with all that data.  There’s sort of a pipeline issue that goes with it, but what does become tricky is compositing because the idea of just having the thing simply layered right now goes away because that could change in both eyes.  What we had to do is we came up with a new compositing system where everything is now compositing into 3D.  We restore all the depth information for every pixel of every element that we create.  And we confine it in 3D.  Because it was just the cleanest way to just make sure everything worked in the world correctly.  So all those little cheats we were able to do before, you know, like painting in a shadow fix or adding a bit of the smoke cloud or something?  Most of that goes out the door, except for a point in the deep background where you’re not worried about pixel issues. You can use things like that.  You can use matte paintings and photographic elements, but most of it has to be done by compositing actual three-dimensional elements now.

DM:  Now that you’ve built Pandora, now that you guys have created all these assets, would it be easier to do a sequel?

JL:  If it was shot in the same location, yes.

DM:  Okay.  So stay away from the other parts of Pandora…

JL:  Yeah, as long as he doesn’t take us to the desert side of Pandora… (laughs)

DM:  But for the Na'vi themselves, you guys… would that be something that now that you’ve solved a lot of those challenges or solved a lot of the big questions, jumping back in, would you…

JL:  We’d redo it all.

DM:  Really?

JL:  Yeah, because I’m sure whatever it would be if Jim and Fox decided to do it in a year or two years, we will have learned something else about something that we’re just going to want to do differently because we like to just keep everything moving along in parallel.  As much as you like to say this... put it this way… there will be stuff we’ll use.  A lot of the assets and trees, you’re right, are built.  There’s a lot that we wouldn’t have to do but as far as what we’re doing with the muscles, the faces, the eyes?  I’m sure we’ll have new stuff by then that we’ll want to put into it.

DM:  How much of the decision to make “Avatar” instead of "Battle Angel Alita" came down to what was ready or what was possible at the moment?

JL:  I don’t know.  That was really all Jim’s decision.  He just came to us and said, "I want to make 'Avatar.'"

DM:  Oh, okay.

JL:  Yeah.

DM:  I didn’t know if that was a conversation that he had to have to see if he could even pull "Alita" off, because I know that as a lead she would have to be completely created.

JL:  Mm-hmm.

DM:  It seems like he has almost every time out... and I kind of love this about him... like he almost always makes the most expensive film ever made.  He almost always has people thinking ahead of time, "Oh, it can’t possibly work," and he almost always sort of throws some challenge at himself that seems insurmountable.

JL:  Yeah.

DM:  For you guys, is that the kick of working on a Cameron film?  Knowing that going in you don’t know if you can really pull all of this off?

JL:  No, we knew we could pull it off, because we wouldn’t have taken it on otherwise. Jim wasn’t going to settle for less than what he wanted. So, you know, we knew going in that we could do it, but it was really figuring out how.  I mean, you read that scriptment.  I read that, too.  It’s like I want to see this movie and I guess the only way its going to happen is if we make it, so let’s figure it out, you know?

DM:  I’m intrigued by guys that insist on pushing things forward, because it seems like that’s a risky place to take your career, film after film after film.  And the payoff is something that we really haven’t experienced before.  When WETA is choosing what they’re working on, I know a lot of it is driven by Peter, especially as you guys are gearing up on "The Hobbit”...

JL:  Oh, absolutely.  

DM:  ... and that pretty much will become all-encompassing now for several years. Within WETA, you guys obviously have different units that work on different things or specialize in different things.  How much of the development of each of these… whether it be skin technology or whatever else... how much is driven by the particular project, and how much is just research that is ongoing?  As people come to you, do you have solutions, or do you have ideas about how you’re going to approach them?

JL:  It’s a little bit of both.  In “Avatar”, you know, again, you’re right.  Jim is always in the right place at the right time.  “Avatar” allowed us to push forward in a lot of things that we really knew that we wanted to be doing anyway because we just knew to really make these kinds of images, here’s what we have to do.  There’s still more…we’ve got to crack the skin.  Or we’ve dealt with the eyes.  The muscles still aren’t working right.  We’ve got to do global illumination. It’s just like all these things that we knew that physically we didn’t quite have solved, we were just… we wanted to move on that anyway.  We would have tackled any one of those or any combination of those on some part of the next film.  But with “Avatar,” it’s like, okay, now we get to do it all, you know?

DM:  Do different filmmakers have a different vocabulary with you as they come in and different levels of how much they understand or how comfortable they are?  I mean, I’ve heard about filmmakers who, when they start a process like this, they’re basically learning it all.

JL:  Yeah.

DM:  And then you have guys like Peter who has been so much a part of WETA’s development or Guillermo who has very specific ideas about how he wants to do things...

JL:  Yeah, yeah.

DM:  How do you develop a shorthand with a filmmaker or how do you develop the language of the filmmaker that will get them through each project?

JL:  What we’ve always done is just worked physically as much as possible.  You know, everything that we do is based on something in the real world.  If you’re talking about where you want to move your light or how bright you want it to be, you’re talking in F-stops, you know?  It’s just that everything is translated from how you shoot on-set, so it makes it much easier to just get through the process.  If a director wants to get into specifics of how we’re solving certain muscle issues or flesh tone issues, that’s great. Some will and some won’t.  Jim’s definitely interested.  Like when we told him, "Okay, we’re getting away from the old-style way of doing the traditional CG muscles of these sort of balloons under skin.  We’re going to do final element analysis.  We’re going to actually solve the bio-mechanics for the muscles."  Jim wanted to know about that because he’s into that kind of stuff, you know?

DM:  Right.

JL:  But that’s not necessary for him to be able to direct a character, you know?  It’s just something that with Jim we could talk more specifically about what’s working and what’s not working.

DM:  Is it easier when you’re dealing with a guy like Cameron since he came out of an effects background and a design background and is so specific?

JL:  Mm-hmm.

DM:  Does that make it easier for you?  Or do you ever run into a situation where somebody has such a specific thing that they want and maybe that’s not technically feasible?  Like how much of the design is form and how much of it is aesthetic?  Or how much of it is function?

JL:  Yeah, that’s a good question.  It’s always still a balance because the way this project was set up you had this template idea.  Jim was working on the stage.  He had low-res models of everything that he could move around and try to design and get everything worked out.  We took the big markers in that as graphically and compositionally what he wanted.  And then once we turned that into the high-res models we saw if it still worked or if it didn’t work.  If it didn’t work, we tried to kind of bring it back into line with what he wanted.  If for some reason that still didn’t work, we’d just go to him and say, "This isn’t going to fly."

DM:  Literally.  

JL:  (laughs) "It’s just not coming out the way you thought it was going to."  And he’ll look at that and say, "Okay, let’s try something else."  Or we’ll suggest something else.

DM:  One of the big questions that I had about the 3D before I saw the film was how Jim’s cutting style would work.  It's so aggressive and has always been so specific, and I think he’s one of the best action choreographers and editors in the world.  But it doesn't immediately lend itself to 3D because your eyes….

JL:  That’s right.

DM:  … are focusing on different things and on the cuts, you’re going to… how did you guys solve that issue of not having the audience laying in the aisles after that first big Thanator chase?  With focal length or what?  Because that had to be one of the biggest technical questions going in.

JL:  Yeah.  Obviously Jim had a lot of experience with that coming into it because of all the documentaries and things he shot.  One of the things he was doing with all these documentaries was just learning the techniques of 3D filmmaking, obviously.  And we had long conversations about it, so we felt we understood what he learned and what he wanted.  But he would do a first pass on that anyway.  When he turned over this template over to us, it had the stereo cameras already worked out.  So they would come in and we’d have everything there.  Once we started going through the animation and up-rezzing everything, if we saw something that we felt like didn’t work because of the motion blur or the speed of the pan… we’ll flag that stuff to him and again, we’ll make suggestions.  We’ll try a different lens.  We’ll show him some things with a different camera move or put the focus in a different place.  And of course, as the cut changes, that’s going to change how you use stereo as well because like you said, you’ve got to lead the eye from shot to shot.  So Jim was very aware of that and we just learned it.  And we just kind of… we just tried to like always look at that ahead of him so that when we were presenting stuff to him, we could flag the problem so we weren’t waiting several iterations to get feedback on it, you know?

DM:  Right.  Yeah.  It really seems like that is the most invisible impressive thing about the film.  I never felt worn out by any of the visual sequences.  And my eyes... because I have come out of 3D movies and had that feeling like, "Oh my God, was I just poked?"

JL:  Yeah, yeah.

DM:  There’s none of that.  It felt so clean and it really felt like he had a handle on how to keep your eye in the right place.

JL:  Yeah, yeah.

DM:  It seems like such a different discipline above and beyond acting and telling a story and everything else, and just to juggle all that... I’ve always heard Lucas say that he was going to be an experimental filmmaker after he finished a certain number of films.  And he’s talked about it for so many years, but he hasn’t done it yet.  It seems like Jim really did just go become an experimental filmmaker for awhile.

JL:  He did, yeah.

DM:  Are there things now that he’s developed on this film that you guys are going to take with you into other projects that you’re doing?  Or that you, on this picture, picked up or innovated or broke ground on?

JL:  It’s a little bit of both because just the whole idea of doing this virtual staging, this virtual capture.  That was just brilliant because all the pieces were out there.  You know, we’d done motion capture before.  We’d done real-time motion capture.  We’d done facial capture.  We’ve had a virtual camera out there, but not on the set that we would just think about... "Okay, Peter go direct the shot this way," because we were always working to plates so you didn’t need it, you know?  But Jim’s idea of like, "Okay, I’m going to put myself in the middle of this virtual world," you know?  Rob Legato came up with this virtual camera that they designed.  It’s brilliant.  It’s a fantastic way to work because any director that needs to work in a 3D realm, and I think a lot will be these days, it’s not that big a leap for them to pick up this camera and just become comfortable with it.  "Yeah, there are my actors.  I see my characters."  It’s not a huge conceptual leap.  So I think you’re going to see more and more of that happening.  No doubt about it.  I mean, we’re already doing it on “TinTin”.  We shot “TinTin” using the same kind of approach, and it was really easy and really fun to do.

DM:   I’m really excited about that because I think people… I think people have a misunderstanding when they hear the term performance capture that it will all look like a Zemekis film, or that it will all look the same as something they’ve seen before. But those are style choices.  That has nothing to do with performance capture. “TinTin” to me seems like the one where we’ll really break some ground and see an outrageous style, that Herge-designed world, but with people performing it.  I’m so glad that they never made it live-action.  I know Spielberg had talked about that so many times over the years.

JL:  Yeah, well I think there was exactly that problem… not to get off the subject here… but I think Peter went to him and said “It’s going to be hard to do live-action. Why don’t we just think about making the characters look like the characters?  We can do that now.”  And Steven saw some of this stuff and went, “Yeah, okay.”

DM:  So it really frees up not only the actors but the filmmakers to push us into things we’ve never really seen visually or places we’ve never really been.

JL:  Well, I think Jim proved that big time on this one, so yeah.

DM:  Well, it’s extraordinary work, Joe.  I really appreciate your taking the time this morning.

JL:  Oh, absolutely.

DM:  And I wish you guys all the best with it, man.  I really hope it is what I think it’s going to be.

JL:  Yeah.

DM:  I can’t imagine it not.

JL:  Yeah.  Like you said, it’s such a cinematic experience.  That’s been the really cool thing... and now people are talking about Best Picture and the dramatic performances, and I think with all the hype going into the technology and everything beforehand, I think people miss that, but that’s what we were focused on all along.  We were focused on Neytiri and Jake, because we knew that was the movie and everything else is really dressing, you know?  And that’s where we put our effort and then just built the world around them.

DM:  That’s what I love about the work you guys do.  When I think of WETA and why I think of you guys as the best effect house in the world, the reason is because the characters that have come out of the work you’ve done are so indelible and they feel real to me.  Gollum and Kong and now the Na'vi.  It is extraordinary that these are things that don’t have flesh and blood.

JL:  Jim would say that every once in a while we were looking at shots.  He’d say, “You know, I just have to stop and remind everybody here none of this is real.”

DM:  Well, if you guys believe in it, it certainly shows on film.

JL:  Yeah, yeah. Cool. Thank you so much. Glad you liked it.  

With that, Joe had to run to a meeting at Warner Bros, and I headed back to join my family for more Christmas festivities, so it wasn't until later that I realized there was one question I forgot to ask about one particular effect in the film.  Despite all the giant blue cat people and the alien monsters and the spaceships, one of the things that blew my mind was the way Sam Worthington's legs looked when we see him in his wheelchair, and I wanted to ask Joe if those were digital legs or how they were accomplished.  I sent him the question through the publicist who set us up in the first place, and he ended up sending me back the following response:

"Those were prosthetic legs made by Richard Taylor and Weta Workshop. Sam's legs were in green and going straight down through the seat of the wheelchair, then painted out. These were shots that ended up being farmed out, so Weta didn't do the final comps on them, but we can probably find one of the plates if Drew wants to see what it looked like on set."

It's an amazing effect and deceptively simple.  Thanks to Joe for taking the time and to Carol Marshall for putting us together in the first place.

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Quaritch in his EVA suit

Stephen Lang plays Col. Miles Quaritch, the military contractor who finds himself pitted against the Na'vi in James Cameron's 'Avatar' 

Credit: 20th Century Fox/WETA

The M/C Interview: Joe Letteri, FX Supervisor on 'Avatar,' takes you inside the tech

We discuss how the year's most ambitious film came together

Last Friday, I got up incredibly early to go watch a bunch of four-year-olds in bathrobes sing some Christmas songs and carry around a rubber doll they called Jesus. And as low-tech as it was, it was absolutely thrilling to each and every parent in the room.  Toshi may not have remembered all the words to "Away In A Manger," but he bellowed every one he did remember with all the heart any parent could ask.  As soon as that was done, I was out the door and in my car and on my way to Burbank, where I sat down for coffee with Joe Letteri, a guy I've been waiting to meet for a while now, so we could talk about the absolute opposite of that Christmas pageant, the mega-expensive and cutting-edge technological marvel of "Avatar".

As FX supervisor for WETA Digital on "Avatar," he's been buried in secrecy for the last five or six years, and that whole time, I've been itching to sit down and ask him about the work he's been doing.  Since Letteri was also a key player on "Lord Of The Rings," one might argue that there are few people in the business better suited to talk about world building on a certain scale right now.  As soon as we had our drinks, we sat down outside and I turned on my tape recorder:

DREW MCWEENY:  I grew up watching these films.  Like I said, I was seven when “Star Wars” came out.

JOE LETTERI:  Yeah, yeah.

DM:  It rewired me.  I staggered out of the theatre and said to my parents, “All right. Who made that?”  We looked at the poster and they were like, “Okay, written and directed by George Lucas”.  That was the first movie where they really did the big behind-the-scenes thing, where for a year we saw specials and magazines and it kind of lit the fire for a lot of kids my age.  It basically said to us, "This is a craft. You can learn to do this.  It’s not something that’s magic or impossible."

JL:  Well, it looked like people climbed into space ships and took off. That was the thing.

DM:  Right.  It’s like, "Whoa, that’s what I want to do," you know?  At first, it was "I want to climb into a space ship and fly somewhere," but it quickly became, "I want to make movies that take you to other planets that don't exist."  And George made it look like that.  This is the first time in awhile where I have… you stop thinking about the process at all when you’re watching, and I know that was a goal.  I know that that was something that as far back as… I think I read the scriptment in ’97..?

JL:  Yeah, that early treatment, yeah, yeah.

DM:  At that point it was like, "He’s nuts.  There’s no way."  I don’t even know how you begin. At what point did you seriously begin the process of, "Okay, this is really happening.  We’re really going to have to pull it off now and how do we marshall the forces?"

JL:  So okay, what happened was we finished “Lord of the Rings,” right? We came up here and we had this big night at the Oscars where we got that sweep that night for “Return of the King”.  The next day, Peter calls and says, "Jim called. He’s got his new 3D camera system. You’ve got to go take a look at it."  I said sure.  So we started talking to Jim about 3D movies because Peter wanted to shoot “Kong” in 3D, and we talked to Jim about using his camera. "Where is it?  You know... is it production ready?" He talked about the documentaries he’d shot, but obviously for a big film like "Kong," we'd have to have multiple package ready.  He said it was probably not going to be ready in time, so Peter just said, "Okay, we’ll shoot 'Kong' in 2D," but he really wanted to do it in 3D.  Then we just stayed in touch, and as we were working on “Kong,” we talked about what we were doing, and how we were going to have a lead character with no dialogue who’s still got to be able to carry scenes and play opposite Naomi, and we were still trying to figure all that stuff out.  We told Jim we were planning to do a facial motion capture, which was new because Gollum we did without any motion capture for the face.

DM:  I think a lot of people think that Gollum was all motion capture, but a lot of it was key frame animation, right?

JL:  Most of it was key frame.

DM:  Yeah.

JL:  Andy was motion captured for sure, but a lot of it, he was done on-set, and so it was matched to what he did on-set so he could be put in place.  For the stuff where you see him photographed with everybody, there’s no motion capture.

DM:  Right.

JL:  You couldn’t do on-set motion capture at the time.  We did it, I think, in two scenes in “Return of the King,” but for "The Two Towers," there was none.  It was all key frame.  We did have a motion capture set and we did work with Andy to mo-cap some of the scenes, so I shouldn't say it was all key frame.  Some of it was motion capture, because we were able to look at the raw data you mo-cap and use that as animation reference, but you can put him into it in a few moments, so there was... maybe I’d say 25% was motion capture.  That went up a little bit higher on “Kong,” but not much.  Maybe, you know, 50% or so. And we upped it more on this one, but it’s certainly still not 100%.  That whole idea that motion capture is an automatic process... it’s an automated process for sure, but it’s not automatic.  It takes artists still looking at every frame of this stuff and saying, “Is it right? Is it right?”  You know, we build systems that are smart so you can say, "Okay, that shape on the mouth in that particular bit of dialogue is wrong. Let’s fix it."  Then you can put it into the system so the next time we see that shape on the actor's face, you know what that's supposed to be and we get it right.

DM:  Oh, okay.

JL:  It still requires artist's intervention because as much as we try to understand what’s going on with the human face, there’s still just a lot of unknowns.  Even the way the muscles are laid out.  They’re not even known to… you know, we’re working with a lot of biologists and bio-engineers on this stuff. We’re really just starting to crack how that is.  And even so three years ago when we started, it was less known then.  So what we do is we take it from the outside in. There’s a system we use called FACS.  I don’t know if you’re familiar with that at all.

DM:  I’ve heard of it.

JL:  Facial Action Coding System.  It was developed by a guy, Paul Ekman, at UCFF years ago to try to figure out if people are lying.  What causes people to make a split second decision?  Like why would a policeman pull a gun on a suspect and decide to shoot him or not shoot him?  What kind of clues tell these guys, who are really good, what it is when they know somebody’s bluffing or not?  And what he did is he broke down the face into what he called action units. And so he broke down every part of the face and you can see what the response is for any particular emotion.... any set of muscles that work together... and that’s what we did for Gollum.  We broke it down that way and we actually used the same kind of tricks.  It was really subtle one-frame self-expressions, like when he’s lying, that you can just see if you frame-by-frame it. You can see that that’s what’s going on.  That’s what happens in the real world but it just goes by so fast that you don’t really ever notice it.

DM:  The moment where Gollum came to life, as I was watching "Two Towers," was the moment where he has his schizophrenic conversation.  That’s where I went, "Alright, he’s alive.  That’s real.  I buy it.  I’m totally into the character."

JL:  Yeah, yeah.

DM:  And I think with “Kong”, the jump there was that even though he was totally non-verbal, we still understood everything Kong was thinking and doing.

JL:  Exactly.

DM:  Which is beautiful and it really, to me, was a performance.

JL:  Oh, yeah.

DM:  The work between the animators and Andy and the way it came together, it felt effortless... like Kong lived.  I really feel like you guys have taken it to the next level, though, this time.  Different actors have… I’ve spoken with two guys who really advocated for the process after they went through it.  Both did it for Zemenkis, but they… Gary Oldman and John Malkovich, guys who you think would be really opposed to this kind of technology and things like that... but it's the exact opposite.  They were both like, "In a heartbeat.  I loved it.  I loved the freedom of it and I loved the feeling that I can play anything."  For Oldman, the idea that he played Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit blew his mind.  And he loved it.  So I think that actors, as they embrace it, it seems like a different skill-set.  Like you kind of have to relearn some of the tools to really be effective in performance capture?

JL:  You kind of do, but it’s interesting talking to some of the actors I’ve spoken with about it.  You do try to get everyone’s take on, "How’s it working for you? Is there anything we else we kind of need to do?"  And they’re saying it actually works for us because it’s like, to them, it’s like the old days of coming up and learning the craft. You didn’t have a set, you just had an empty room and a bunch of people just acting and that was it, you know?  Before you got famous or got a job, you didn’t have costumes. You didn’t have anything.  You were just acting.  So to them acting in a room just strips it down.  And it’s actually great watching these performances because it’s like there’s nobody in the room and you’re just watching these dramas, you know?  It’s really cool.

DM:  I have to say the performance in this movie that I think is the jump, the one where you look at it, and you’re like… she just looks alive...

JL:  Zoe.

DM:  Right.  What Zoe does in this movie is unbelievable.

JL:  Yeah, yeah.

DM:  Everybody’s very good.  Joel David Moore seems to really take to it.  Sigourney’s amazing.  And I love how much it’s Sigourney to the point where the audience… the first time she walks out, they laugh because they’re like, “Holy crap.  It’s Sigourney Weaver... and she's blue!"

JL:  Yeah, yeah.

DM:  There’s something about the way Zoe does it and about the way she slips into Naytiri’s skin that is other worldly.  You really buy that she’s not human and that the physiology works differently, and she makes it really beautiful.  As you guys are watching these performances come together, do you have moments where you go, "Wow, I didn’t think it was going to look like that"?

JL:  There’s a few of them, but you know really what happens is... like, you’re approaching this stuff incrementally to the point where… the problem with CG is until everything is right, it just doesn’t look right at all.  So it’s almost like doing a puzzle where you’ve got this thing and you’re putting it all in and you’re layering it and you get it piece by piece and it’s in there and the final piece is there and you look at it and say it’s done... great.  Okay, onto the next one, you know?  So for me, it wasn’t until the premiere that I got to sit back and actually just watch it, which is great.

DM:  Peter was talking about one of the things that he’s very proud of with WETA, and one of the things he says is proprietary and that he feels like you do better than anybody in the business... it’s the eyes.  To me, that is the key to your characters. So much of it comes down to if the eyes work, and the design of the eyes seems to be cheated a bit so that you have that much more surface space to play.

JL:  It's cheated hugely.  It’s actually a very similar idea to what we had with Gollum, which is one of the things we talked about with Jim, you know, getting back to sort of the early days. These eyes are almost 3 times as big proportionate as human eyes. You just don’t realize that when you’re looking at them.  We did the same thing with Gollum.  His eyes were like 2-1/2 times human size, and you just don’t realize it because you’re so used to wanting to see a face that you really have to exaggerate it to make it work.  But the Na'vi also had the sort of cat-eye design so there was a little bit of that while still trying to make them look human, so again, we worked on those eyes for a long time, from the initial design to first animating them and showing Jim, "Okay, here’s what your design was, but this isn’t going to exactly work because we need to get his expression," and, you know, it was just an iterative process for us to figure it out and then to talk through with him.  "Okay, where do you want to go with it?"  Because you’re… obviously, the easiest thing to do is take it all the way back to human but that’s not what you want to do, so you’re always just trying to find what’s the balance between getting this character that you want but still getting all the human expression that you need.

DM:  What is it about the WETA eyes?  Obviously it’s not just a software thing, but it’s something in how you design or something in how you execute them that I think takes it that extra distance from an effect to something that reacts the way we believe an eye should.  How much of that was a process of you guys having to go through sort of trial and error before you really looked at something and went, "Okay, that works. That sells it."

JL:  It wasn’t exactly trial and error, but it was a process where we knew what we were going towards and it was getting all the pieces to work.  You break it down.  For example, there’s the… you’re trying to capture the performance of the eyes.  We have an optical system that will track the eyes separately from the rest of the face to figure out what they’re doing.  Then the animators have to look at that and just say, “That’s great.  Does that really come through or not?”  And if not, you’re doing animation on top of it to get the detailed movement of the eyes, the glances working the right way, things that are off just because... okay, what Sam did was this but because Jake’s character’s eyes are this far apart it makes him look a little bit like he’s looking in the wrong direction… whatever.  There’s lots of detail that you go into for every shot just to get the animation going.  You’ve got all the movement of the skin around the eyes and the muscles that contribute to it.  When the eyes move, they have… they influence everything else around it and they’re influenced by everything else around it. So you’ve got all that as far as the creature and muscle side of it goes.  And then you’ve got all the lighting side.  The skin, you know, getting the thinness of the skin to work right, the subsurface... especially with the blue skin. That was tricky, to not really make it look thick because we needed a thin layer of blue and we still needed a blood layer underneath it, so for the whole skin getting that translucency was much trickier because of the color.  And then the eyes themselves because they have a certain translucent quality to them. They also have this kind of caustic quality to them because they’re lenses and they focus light and that’s a lot of what you see on the eyes... how they focus light. Well, we wanted to do this whole thing on this movie, to really work with global illumination because we wanted everything to be lit in the same world.  The characters, the jungle, everything.  It’s like just lighting… look around you.  It’s like lighting this whole patio and the parking lot beyond it, and the street out front... and everything else.  So we had a whole project going to get that working, but of course that all has to come together in the eyes. You have to figure out how to gather all that light and focus it into the eyes.  So we knew we needed to do all that but it just took awhile, but once it came together you could see it was working.  And it felt like, "Yeah, okay.  We have it."

DM:  When you’re building a world completely as you did with Pandora, where you’re starting from zero and everything, the ecosystem and all the life forms and all the plants and everything has to be built... is it more difficult to do that than what Peter did with “Lord of the Rings” where you’re mixing effects elements and you’re combining locations and things that are built? Because it almost seems like if it was a completely CG environment you’d have more control and you'd have more freedom to do things.

JL:  Which is a bad thing.

DM:  Oh, okay.

JL:  It is.  Because when you have something, like when you’re putting a character like Gollum next to Elijah, you’ve got your reference right there.  He’s got to look as good as Elijah, performance wise, skin wise, everything.  He’s got to look totally believable. So you’ve got your reference right there to work with. And it just hangs together. When you don’t have that, you can just start from scratch and put him out there, and you can miss the mark and not know you’ve missed it.  But eventually you’re going to see that because it’s just not going to feel real to you, you know?  So you have to keep all this in your head about just trying to figure out what are the pieces that are real and what are the pieces that are not real.  And it would have been really hard to do this movie without the experience of having gone through "Rings," you know, and then working with Gollum in the plates and then Kong, where it's the same kind of thing but now we’re building more of the environment around him and then taking the step to just, okay, now we’re building the whole thing.  Because you keep in mind all those things that you learned from doing all those other films on what actually you’re looking for to make it look real and just don’t forget it because you don’t have the reference anymore.

DM:  Interesting.  The first test they showed me at Lightstorm of the 3D was a couple of years ago, and they showed me some of the stuff they’d done where they retrofitted other films, films that had been shot in 2D.  And the one that really blew my mind, the one where I started to get really excited about the potential of “Avatar,” was “The Two Towers”.   It was a test with Sam and Frodo and Gollum.  And what did it was seeing Sam in the foreground, Frodo in the background, and Gollum between them.  That’s where my brain just went, "Alright, well he’s holding a space.  He’s real, because there he is standing between two real people."

JL:  Yeah, yeah.

DM:  So much of this does take place either in the Na'vi world where it’s all Na'vi or it takes place inside the human buildings, but there are those moments where things cross over.  I think particularly striking is the moment where Neytiri finally meets Jake.

JL:  The human Jake, yeah, yeah.

DM:  It's beautiful, and by that point in the movie, you want to see them together and then you realize how the scale is so different, and it’s a mind boggling moment.  It really sells Neytiri.  I think that’s what does it.  You go, "Oh, well, there she is and there’s Jake and they’re together and wow."

JL:  Yeah, yeah.  That was a whole design thing because we talked about this with Jim a lot. Early on you’ve got, like I said, you’re in the human world.  You see the Avatar. You introduce the size of them in the tank.  You see how long they are.  Then you see them in the ambient room where they’re waking up. You get to see them next to human reference.  Then they run out and they run past a few med-techs, you know? After that, you’re pretty much out in the jungle with them, and at that point we knew that you would just be looking at them as human. You forget about their size because you’re doing the close-up, you’re doing the 2-shot... whatever.  You’re just going to think about them as human. It’s the exact same thing we went through with the Hobbits.  Once you’re in a scene with just the Hobbits, you never thought about their size because you had no scale reference.  So we knew the movie was going to take that arc and it needed to be established early on, and you needed to bring it home at the end. Not only for scale reference but emotionally.  You really need it to see who he really was.

DM:  That seems to be the big jump is combining these photo-real characters and humans to an extent that you stop thinking about what’s real and what’s not.  There are moments in “Avatar” where there are human characters who, if I’m not mistaken, have been digitally duplicated.

JL:  Oh yeah, there were a lot of digital doubles in that movie.

DM:  That’s fascinating.  I think that’s one of the things that is one of the most unusual effects in the movie because you’re looking for the aliens.  You’re looking for the big things but those digital doubles... that’s a whole different game you guys are having to play.  Can you talk about why you used those, when you used those, and sort of how they were developed?

JL:  Generally we use digital doubles for stunt-work.  Things that are too dangerous to do otherwise.  Sometimes you use them for things that are too difficult to shoot like those shots of Quaritch fighting Jake at the end in the EVA suit.  Probably half a dozen of those were digital double shots, you know, because you just couldn’t get the right camera angle on them to shoot them.  It all comes down to the same kind of technology, the same idea that we started with with Gollum really.  It’s just what’s happened over the years as Gollum took a year to make and all that time and effort going into one character.  Now you have to do like dozens of characters, so you really have to take what you learned and apply it, and we really learned a lot about skin in an interesting way by doing blue skin because like I said it was really hard. Blue skin just wants to look like plastic.  It really does because you’re absorbing all the light and you’re not getting any of the red back that tells you it’s flesh.  So we had to come up with another technique to figure out how to let the light go back in and come back out as red because we knew we wanted them to feel fleshy around the eyes and the lips and have red blood and around the hands and everything.  But it really focused our effort, too, on skin to the point where it’s like, "Okay, we’ve got a pretty good idea how to do human skin now."  Too bad we didn’t have to do much of it, you know?  But we did it for the digital doubles, so we treat everything of a piece.  Whatever you’re doing… for us doing a vehicle or skin, it’s all the math behind it.  All the science behind it is all based on the same thing.

DM:  How do you create a sense of scale in some of this because, for example, the Home Tree sequence... unavoidably if you watched 9/11 happen, there is that same sense of scale of something coming down.  It is gargantuan and in the theatre it’s not just the sound, it is the imagery and what we’re seeing that really sells the fact that this thing is enormous.  But you are dealing with digital models, so how do you sell that idea of scale?  What are the things that you guys… the signifiers that you use?

JL:  It’s a real balancing act and it really depends on the object.  Like for example, the Home Tree being a good one... if you’re sort of in close and you look at the bark on it, you expect the bark to be sort of like a tree bark, right?  And that makes sense, but once you’re far away at a distance, if you really had that scale of tree bark, it would be so small that from that distance it would just look like nothing.  You wouldn’t get the tree bark scale.  So what we have to do for something like that, where we know we’re going to use it in multiple scales, is work in multiple levels of detail.  In that case, it looks like tree bark, so when you’re in close you can see what looks like you’d expect, what looks like tree bark, and when you’re farther away it still looks like tree bark.  When you’re even farther away, it still looks like tree bark.  There’s just multiple scales of detail.  We do it with the dressing, the leaves and the foliage and all that sort of thing. Sometimes we have to play with the size depending on the shot.  When Jake and Neytiri are up at the top of the banshee aviary and they walk out and you see them surrounded by all those leaves, you know you have sort of a good size for them to believe that it’s a large tree, but even at that size once you’re down on the ground and those leaves are 1,000 feet in the air, they’re just going to look like little bits of cotton.  Sometimes we just have to play with it for different shots just so you understand what it is you’re looking at, so the tree still looks like a tree.

You can read the rest of this conversation in part two of the interview.

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<p>Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo Di Caprio play federal agents investigating the disappearance of a mental patient... OR DO THEY... in Martin Scorsese's wickedly convoluted 'Shutter Island'&nbsp;</p>

Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo Di Caprio play federal agents investigating the disappearance of a mental patient... OR DO THEY... in Martin Scorsese's wickedly convoluted 'Shutter Island' 

Credit: Paramount Pictures

The M/C Review: Scorsese's trip to 'Shutter Island' with Leonardo Di Caprio leaves a mark

Director pays tribute to Val Lewton with this emotional horror film starring his new favorite actor

Another highlight from this year's Butt-Numb-A-Thon (aside from the previously reviewed "Avatar" and "Kick-Ass") was the world premiere screening of Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island."  If you're not familiar with Butt-Numb-A-Thon, it's a 24 hour movie marathon, where the movies play back to back to back from noon on Saturday to noon on Sunday.  Except this year it started at 11:00 and ended after 2:00.  Harry Knowles programs the event as his birthday/Geek Christmas, and it's always a mix of vintage films and new films.  Honestly, the best example of how that can pay off with a whole that is better than any of its parts individually came with the way we ended up watching "Shutter Island."

Harry had to write Scorsese a letter and ask him for permission to show the film at Butt-Numb-A-Thon.  So Harry wrote a letter describing the vintage programming and the children's charity that the BNAT supports and how Harry wanted to show "Shock Corridor" by Sam Fuller right before showing "Shutter Island."  And he found the entire experience sort of nerve-wracking.  I get it.  It's one thing to ask Paramount to give you the Scorsese film.  It's another thing entirely to ask Scorsese directly.

The director sent word back to Harry that he was interested in letting the film play, but he wanted to request a different movie to play before it.  Harry is very proprietary over the BNAT line-up, so it easily could have turned into a problem if Harry didn't want to change his programming.  This, of course, was Martin Scorsese making the request, though, so Harry did the only sane thing he could do and happily changed the lead-in.  Instead of "Shock Corridor," we ended up seeing "The Red Shoes."  Little surprise there.  It's one of his oft-cited favorite films, and he just co-produced a new 4K restoration of the film.  I've seen it many times, but it was wonderful to see this classic work on a crowd, and considering how many of them hadn't seen it before, it was an act of kindness for Scorsese to push this one on Harry.

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