2016: Transition, Death, and Drama

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The year 2016 was a dramatic and transitional year in the States; marked by numerous shootings in America and acts of extreme violence world wide.  The deaths of many influential people who helped transform the 20th century was more impactful in 2016 than previous years.  Some notable deaths include: Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Harper Lee, Garry Shandling, George Martin, Prince, Gordie Howe, Muhammad Ali, Garry Marshall, Gene Wilder, Arnold Palmer, Fidel Castro, Carrie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds. The political landscape saw some major shifts, including the inauguration of Donald Trump, Brexit, the impeachment of the Presidents of Brazil and South Korea, major turmoil and civil war in Aleppo, Syria.  That is not to say the year was all bad: scientific breakthroughs such as the detection of gravitational waves 100 years after Albert Einstein’s prediction, the Cubs winning the World Series, and a decrease in the unemployment rate provided positive relief from the tragic aspects of the year.  All in all, there did seem to be an overwhelming desire to “start fresh” in 2017.

Many of the films last year encapsulated the struggles of 2016 in powerful and engaging ways, others succeeded in distracting people from the real world.  Racial tensions were highly publicized throughout the year in local and national news.  This ever-present and compelling issue found its way into many commercial and less-commercial motion picture vehicles.  Many films conveyed impactful and engaging messages that reached a wide audience.

The issues of race, prejudice, and oppression stood out the most and are reflected in several films from last year.  Some examples are, Moonlight, Loving, Hidden Figures, Zootopia, Lion, 13th, O.J. Made in America, and I Am Not Your Negro.  This was a refreshing and triumphant year for Black filmmakers, writers, actors, and others that helped make these powerful films comes to life.

Prejudice in film is obviously not a new concept.  Its use in story structure is abundant in both storytelling and film.  However, the issue of racial and social prejudice seemed to resonate with the current sociopolitical climate.  Racial prejudice was highlighted over and over again in film last year.  This could be seen overtly in films like: Moonlight, I Am Not Your Negro, Fences, 13th, Hidden Figures, O.J. Made in America, Loving, even the children’s animated film Zootopia spearheaded the issue of race.  These films featured the struggles of race, particularly in the 20th century, and helped frame how we got to where we are today.  We have come along way since Jim Crow laws, but there are still deep roots in America that still need to be overcome.  The pervasiveness of this issue in film needs to continue to permeate into the psyche of society.  Tolerance is built through the strong presence of prejudice and the acts of challenging norms and paradigms in storytelling.

Prejudice also showed up in film without focusing specifically on race.  The covert use of prejudice could be seen in such films as: Hell or High Water, The Fits, and Arrival.  The alienation of the poor working class along with the blatant and disrespectful treatment of a ranger of Native American decent are issues in Hell or High Water.  The Fits follows the life of an 11 year-old tomboy trying to fit in with her peers.  Showing how prejudice can arise naturally through adolescent development and peer pressure.  Arrival shows how fear can lead to blind reactionary self-destruction.  Many films this year touch on prejudice in their own way and help reinforce the prevalence of this struggle in societies around the world.

If you were trying to escape the hardships, discomfort, and oppression in the news or in your everyday life, there was no shortage of comedic, science fiction, and fantasy films. Some of these films were outstanding and hit the mark, The Nice Guys, Toni Erdmann, Midnight Special, Deadpool, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and others felt lack-luster, i’m looking at you Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

It is no surprise that Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Animated films received the highest budgets, although you may be surprised as to who received the most success in the box office.  The films with the highest budgets were: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (250M), Captain America: Civil War (250M), Finding Dory (200M), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (200M), and Star Trek Beyond (185M)1.  Films with smaller budgets included: The Invitation (1M), Moonlight (1.5M), Swiss Army Man (3M), and The Witch (3.5M)1.  It is no shocker that the big budget movies were either comic book or sci-fi films with incredible amounts of CGI or pixar animation and that the smaller budget films were from independent distributors and production companies like A24 and Drafthouse Films.

While I was looking into budgets I decided to figure out which films were the most successful, in terms of gross profit and return on investment.  The films that made the most in terms dollar amount were expected, however the movies with the highest return on investment were not.  The top 5 films with the highest gross profit were Captain America with $901.6M, Zootopia with $869.9M, Rogue One with $850.8M, Secret Life of Pets with $800.9M, and  Deadpool with $725.7M2.  These films were all also in the top 48 highest budgets for the year.  In terms of return on investment, there were some smaller budget films that triumphed at the box office.  These films include: Moonlight with a budget of $1.5M it finished with $54.2M in worldwide gross profit1.  That is an increase of 3618% on the $1.5M budget, not too shabby1.  Lights out came in at number 2 with an increase of 2877%, turning $5M into $143.8M gross profit worldwide1.  The third spot went to La La Land with an increase of 2079% by taking a budget of $20M and walking away with $415.9M gross profit worldwide1.  A shout out also goes out to Mei Ren Yu, a Chinese fantasy, science fiction film that had a worldwide gross profit of $491.4M with a budget of $60.7M1.

There was also a few films that did not produce as well as expected.  The following films had budgets over $50M and all figures are derived from information found on the-numbers.com.  Coming in at number one is Live By Night, Ben Affleck’s crime drama set in prohibition era had a budget of $65M and only brought in $21M worldwide, a 66% loss.  Number two was Free State of Jones with a budget of $50M and made $23M in box office sales worldwide resulting in a 53% loss.  Number three was Snowden with a budget of $50M and a only bringing in $34M worldwide for a 31% loss.

The Academy honored influential technology and engineering innovations from the past 10-15 years at the Scientific and Technical Awards.  Many notable achievements were acknowledged, including: companies that pioneered digital cameras and technology, ray-tracing and motion-capture technology, and the creation of the horse-puppet.  There were too many recipients of Scientific and Technical Awards to give them all justice, so I will just go over a few.

The pioneers of the digital camera age set the standard and have continued to develop their cameras and systems to keep the industry innovative and efficient.  The companies honored at the awards were: Thomson Grass Valley for the Viper Filmstream camera, ARRI and their Alexa digital camera, RED, Sony and their F65 CineAlta camera, and Panavison and Sony’s Genesis digital camera system.

The transition into the digital age of film was supported by a variety of technologies, systems, and various graphic design techniques.  A major process that allowed for 3-dimensional shapes and graphics to have a heightened state of realism was advancement in ray tracing techniques, adaptive sampling, and an Open Shading Language (OSL) that paved the way for rendering applications like the Arnold Renderer.

Ray tracing is a process that creates an image by following a “ray” of light from the observer to an object and then to a light source.  This process is carried out through a computer program that traces these lines and determines the amount of shadow on a given object. An excellent explanation of this process can be found here3.  The computational process behind ray tracing can be taxing because it traces each pixel within the image and calculates a specific color representation determined by the amount of light that individual pixel should contain.  Ray tracing has its roots in ray casting, a process developed back in 1968 by Arthur Appel4.

Adaptive Sampling techniques are a variation to the process behind ray tracing that lowers the required quality threshold for each pixel.  This allows the process of ray tracing to run faster and increase efficiency.  The efficiencies and added realism brought on by ray tracing were made possible by Larry Gritz for his development of the Open Shading Language (OSL).  This allowed for applications to be created that would allow computers to calculate the necessary information fast enough to make them useful in the creation of films.  Technical Acheivement certificates were awarded to Larry Gritz, to Carl Ludwig, Eugene Troubetzkoy, and Maurice van Swaaij at Blue Sky Studios, for their groundbreaking work on ray tracing and Adaptive Sampling techniques, and to Vladimir Koylazov for V-Ray at Chaos Group.

Marcos Fajardo’s development of the Arnold Renderer, an application that utilized OSL to efficiently disseminate a 3d landscape and calculate complex interactions between objects and light sources.  Below is a video showing some examples of Arnold in action.

In addition to the work done in post-production to enhance realism there were also honors rewarded to the advancement in facial recognition in terms of motion capture. Major advancements to facial recognition technology and animation rig-based facial performance-capture systems helped craft more complex and visually realistic visualizations onto the big screen5.

The final technology that I will cover is the creation of the horse puppet by Mark Rappaport, Scott Oshita, Jeff Cruts, and Todd Minobe.  “The Animatronic Horse Puppet provides increased actor safety, close integration with live action, and improved realism for filmmakers.”5  The horse puppet created for The Last Samurai, in 2003, resulted in a transformation in animal animatronics in the film industry.  Below is a video showing how the horse puppet contributed to the filming of The Last Samurai and clearly demonstrates a safer environment for actors and animals.

For more info on the horse puppet and its use in film check out Creature Effects’ site

There were some strong performances from some established actors this year.  A few notable performances are Casey Affleck, in Manchester by the Sea, Denzel Washington, in Fences, Isabelle Huppert, in Elle, Viola Davis, in Fences, and Naomi Harris, in Moonlight.  While this is only the tip of the iceberg for the year in acting, their performances stuck out as raw and honest representations of their characters.

It was not just the established actors that had tremendous performances last year.  Some newcomers had breakout performances last year that are worth taking note.  The recently orphaned teen in Manchester dealing with the struggles of adolescence coupled with the loss of his father is championed by Lucas Hedges, in Manchester by the Sea.  In an effort to avoid any spoilers I will just say that Trevante Rhodes’ performance in Moonlight is touching and vulnerable as he walks a tight rope between two personas.  Royalty Hightower brings a strong determination and drive to the film The Fits, while struggling with peer pressure at a challenging time in life when self-identity is being formed.  Other noteworthy performances can be found from Anya Taylor-Joy, in The Witch, Sasha Lane, in American Honey, and Ruth Nega, in Loving.

Every year there are a slew of engaging adventure animations that seem to either have a catchy song or human social problem depicted through an animal lens.  This year, of course, had both in addition to some diverse and challenging concepts.  Zooptopia fit the profile of “social problem depicted through an animal lens”.  The story takes on prejudice and fear as a mechanism to control the populace, tucked away in a fun mystery adventure flick targeted towards children.  The sing-a-long animated movies of 2016 were Trolls, Sing, and Moana.  Trolls was the only song to have a major “radio” hit, but none stood out as much as Frozen’s, “Let it Go” did back in 2013.

Some animated features that ‘broke the mold’ were Kubo and the Two Strings for its astonishing use of stop motion and My Life as a Zucchini.  Kubo combined 3D printing technology with seamless and breathtaking CGI.  The final result is novel and multidimensional on a level that is unattainable by standard 3d animation.  My Life as a Zucchini was also stop motion, but that is not the aspect that caused this film to stand out.  This film’s story arc and plot placed it in a different realm when compared to traditional animated features.  The darker and lonelier parts of the psyche are atypical in the animated world and should be welcomed to the art form.

It is hard to classify a year as being dismal or depressing, since so many equally wonderful and amazing things will also occur that just may go unnoticed.  With that said there is an, at least seemingly, overwhelming consensus that 2016 was relentlessly and terribly unwavering.  This idea is also captured in the major films of the year.  There was no shortage of dark, depressing, and intense films, some examples are: Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, Lion, and Elle.  Race relations and civil liberties were strong themes in film as well with the films: I am not your Negro, Hidden Figures, Loving, and so many more.  There were still some action adventure and films targeted towards comic relief and general escape from real life, but they were few and far between. There was basically just comic book movies and The Nice Guys.  I hope that 2017 will bring some refreshing ideas and film concepts to the industry and we can see a shift away from the dark and depressing films that loomed over the American film audience all year.  I understand the importance of keeping the American people “woke”, but there is also something to be said about giving people a breather so they can fight the good fight while not in the theaters.  It will be interesting to see if and how the political climate in the United States and around the world affects the writers in the film industry for the next few years.  I also hope to see some biopics or documentaries to commemorate some of the many recent fallen icons.  All we can do is stay strong out there and keep independent film companies alive so that thought-provoking and engaging films can reach wider audiences each year.

Video Sourcehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MJ9lbKF2-U

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