Monday, February 9, 2009

The Ten Most Expensive Comic Books at New York Comic Con

By Ray Wert

If our list of the ten most expensive comic books at the New York Comic Con is any indication, the high-end comic book market hasn't yet experienced any fallout from the Financiapocalypse.

We spent the morning mired in "Vendor Alley" here at the 2009 New York Comic Con, wading through the boxes of mylar-clad and cardboard-backed books. The lanes of the north end of the convention floor are littered with small- and medium-sized stores peddling their wares. Heck, even my hometown web-based comic shop was here. But we were here to focus on the big dogs of the high-end comic market at the New York Comic Con — the vendors with the ten most expensive books for sale.

They weren't as difficult to find as we expected, given the current economic climate. But according to New Force Comics' Rick Whitelock there's a reason for that — the big collectors are still willing to pay big bucks. "There are some bargains to be had, but for the most part most high-end books are still going for a very high dollar amount," Whitelock said. "It hasn't hit us yet. The comic book industry is still strong." Our list would seem to prove that contention.

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Iraq metal band reunites in U.S., meets idols

Bassist Firas al-Lateef, left, drummer Marwan Riyadh, center, and singer-guitarist Faisal Talal of Iraqi rock band Arassicauda have been reunited in New Jersey.

NEW YORK - One of Iraq's first heavy metal bands has been reunited in the United States after fleeing their homeland as refugees.

Members of Acrassicauda faced death threats in Iraq for playing Western rock music and went into hiding before spending two years exiled in Syria and Turkey.

Named after a type of scorpion, Acrassicauda began writing and playing heavy metal in 2001 after being inspired by bands including Metallica and Slayer.

Their story was chronicled in the 2007 documentary "Heavy Metal in Baghdad."

Drummer Marwan Riyadh, 24, arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport on Friday, where he was greeted by band mates Firas al-Lateef, 27, and Faisal Talal, 25. Fellow member Tony Aziz, 30, was visiting family in Detroit.

The New York Times reported that the group met idols Metallica on Sunday after a concert at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

'Write some good riffs'
James Hetfield, Metallica's lead singer, presented them with a guitar signed "Welcome to America."

"That's for keeping the faith. Write some good riffs," Hetfield reportedly told them.

The Times said the U.S. government has granted all four members of Acrassicauda refugee status, which allows them to apply for green cards in a year.

The non-profit International Rescue Committee has been working to resettle them in one location since last summer. They are now living in Elizabeth, N.J.

But after playing only three shows before the war began in 2003, Riyadh admitted they need to practice.

"We haven’t won any awards, but we have won our freedom,” Riyadh said.

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Singer Chris Brown booked in LA

Singer Chris Brown arrives at the Clive Davis pre-Grammy party in Beverly Hills, California on February 7, 2009. (UPI Photo/Jim Ruymen)
Singer Chris Brown arrives at the Clive Davis pre-Grammy party in Beverly Hills, California on February 7, 2009. (UPI Photo/Jim Ruymen)

Singer Chris Brown faces a possible felony charge in connection with an incident involving singer Rihanna, Los Angeles police sources said Sunday.

Bail was set at $50,000 Sunday evening as the Grammy-nominated R&B star was booked on suspicion of making felony criminal threats, LAPD sources told the Los Angeles Times. Brown, 19, turned himself in to police Sunday evening at the Los Angeles Police Department Wilshire Division station.

Citing sources familiar with the investigation, the Times said police were investigating the incident as a felony domestic violence case. Law enforcement sources told TMZ police received a call about the incident at 12:30 a.m. Sunday, and arrived to find a woman who claimed Brown, 19, assaulted her during an argument in a car.

Police said in a statement the woman was Brown's girlfriend, the singer Rihanna, whose full name is Robyn Rihanna Fenty, the Times reported. The woman reportedly had visible injuries and Brown was not at the scene when police arrived.

Recording Academy officials announced Rihanna, 20, would not perform as scheduled Sunday at the Grammy Awards. Soul singer Al Green took her spot on the show, the Times said.

TMZ said when it contacted Rihanna's representatives for a statement regarding the incident, a publicist said: "Rihanna is well. Thank you for your concern and support."

A spokesman for Brown's record label did not respond to a Times request for comment on the report.

Rihanna and Brown were nominated for the Grammy for best pop collaboration with vocals -- Rihanna for "If I Never See Your Face Again," which she recorded with Maroon 5, and Brown for "No Air," which he performed with Jordin Sparks. The Grammy went to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss for "Rich Woman."

Rihanna was also up for best dance recording for "Disturbia." The Grammy in that category went to Daft Punk for "Harder Better Faster Stronger."

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Grammy awards: Plant-Krauss collaboration has big night

Kevin Winter, Getty Images

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 08: Singers Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift present the Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album award to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss during the 51st Annual Grammy Awards held at the Staples Center on February 8, 2009 in Los Angeles, California.


LOS ANGELES -- Forget Auto-Tune, iPods and digital downloading. The hottest thing in the recording industry is musical marriages.

The odd couple of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, a rock god and the queen of bluegrass, dominated Sunday's Grammy Awards, winning album and record of the year. And collaborations -- some expected, some not -- made the 51st annual awards more memorable than many of the winning songs.

The Plant/Krauss album "Raising Sand" won five Grammys this year after getting one in 2008. Their mix of such American roots music as folk, blues, country and rockabilly was the right combination of inspiration and craft to win over the 11,000 voters in the Recording Academy.

Plant said he, Krauss and producer T-Bone Burnett initially figured they'd try working together for three days and then have a nice dinner. Instead, they completed an entire album that became a surprising blockbuster, selling 1.2 million copies.

Krauss, who has earned more Grammys than any other woman, now has 26 (conductor Georg Solti earned 31 while Quincy Jones has 27). Plant, who didn't win any while fronting Led Zeppelin, has eight.

"I'm bewildered," said Plant as he accepted for album of the year. "In the old days, we would have called this selling out. But it's a good way to spend a Sunday."

Backstage, the British star, who has made a career out of exploring American music, thanked Krauss for "patiently showing me the America I haven't been exposed to. America needs to know what its songs are all about."

If they gave trophies for live musical collaborations at the Grammys, there would have been many winners. The most ambitious mash-up was the best: the hip-hop hit "Swagga Like Us" with nine-months-pregnant M.I.A., T.I., Jay-Z, Kanye West and Lil Wayne (in a suit, like the rest of these male rappers).

Adele, winner of best new artist, proved herself worthy of the prize when she offered a heartfelt "Chasing Pavements," with Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles joining on harmonies.

Radiohead invited the USC Marching Band for a moody, mid-tempo "15 Step." Estelle charmed on "American Boy" with help from West, who participated in three performances. Justin Timberlake did double duty, joining T.I. for "Dead and Gone" and Al Green, for an 11th hour duet of "Let's Stay Together."

"I had 2 hours and 20 minutes' notice," Green said backstage.

He and Timberlake substituted for pop-soul siren Rihanna, who pulled out of the show at the last minute along with her pop-star boyfriend, Chris Brown, after a report of a domestic assault incident.

And don't overlook the thrilling, organic duet of Plant and Krauss on "Rich Woman" and "Gone Gone Gone."

A pair of solo performances stood out, as well: Carrie Underwood tearing it up on "Last Name" and Jennifer Hudson on the stirring "You Pulled Me Through" -- a fitting selection for the first-time Grammy winner whose mother, brother and nephew were murdered last fall.

Meet the Beatle

The emotional hero Sunday was Paul McCartney, whom the young stars fawned over.

When Coldplay took one of its three trophies, guitarist Jonny Buckland apologized to "Sir Paul McCartney for blatantly recycling Sgt. Pepper outfits."

Backstage, McCartney was his usual quick wit. "I didn't come to win it; I came to be in it," he said. But he was serious when asked about his performance of "I Saw Her Standing There" with Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters and Nirvana on drums.

"Sometimes in my career I'm lucky enough to find someone who's a great collaborator," McCartney said. "The obvious example is John [Lennon]. We lucked out. Since then, I've worked a lot of people. You have to trust them. My latest is Youth from Killing Joke," the British punk-rocker with whom he records as the group Fireman. "He's a friend. We work well together."

Among the multiple winners were Lil Wayne, Radiohead, Metallica, Adele, Kirk Franklin, Sugarland, Kanye West and Al Green.

Among the first-time winners were They Might Be Giants, the 27-year-old quirky Brooklyn pop-rock band who won for best children's album ("Here Comes the 123s"), and Kings of Leon, Southern rockers who beat out giants Coldplay, AC/DC, the Eagles and alt-rock heroes Radiohead for best rock performance by a group with vocals ("Sex on Fire").

But some still-active senior citizens also were acknowledged with Grammys: Pete Seeger, 89, B.B.King, 83, and Elliott Carter, 100.

Jon Bream • 612-673-1719

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Auto-Tune: Why Pop Music Sounds Perfect

By Josh Tyrangiel

John Shearer / Wireimage; Neal Preston / Corbis; Ethan Miller / Getty

If you haven't been listening to pop radio in the past few months, you've missed the rise of two seemingly opposing trends. In a medium in which mediocre singing has never been a bar to entry, a lot of pop vocals suddenly sound great. Better than great: note- and pitch-perfect, as if there's been an unspoken tightening of standards at record labels or an evolutionary leap in the development of vocal cords. At the other extreme are a few hip-hop singers who also hit their notes but with a precision so exaggerated that on first listen, their songs sound comically artificial, like a chorus of '50s robots singing Motown.

The force behind both trends is an ingenious plug-in called Auto-Tune, a downloadable studio trick that can take a vocal and instantly nudge it onto the proper note or move it to the correct pitch. It's like Photoshop for the human voice. Auto-Tune doesn't make it possible for just anyone to sing like a pro, but used as its creator intended, it can transform a wavering performance into something technically flawless. "Right now, if you listen to pop, everything is in perfect pitch, perfect time and perfect tune," says producer Rick Rubin. "That's how ubiquitous Auto-Tune is." (Download TIME's Auto-Tune Podcast from iTunes)

Auto-Tune's inventor is a man named Andy Hildebrand, who worked for years interpreting seismic data for the oil industry. Using a mathematical formula called autocorrelation, Hildebrand would send sound waves into the ground and record their reflections, providing an accurate map of potential drill sites. It's a technique that saves oil companies lots of money and allowed Hildebrand to retire at 40. He was debating the next chapter of his life at a dinner party when a guest challenged him to invent a box that would allow her to sing in tune. After he tinkered with autocorrelation for a few months, Auto-Tune was born in late 1996.

Almost immediately, studio engineers adopted it as a trade secret to fix flubbed notes, saving them the expense and hassle of having to redo sessions. The first time common ears heard Auto-Tune was on the immensely irritating 1998 Cher hit "Believe." In the first verse, when Cher sings "I can't break through" as though she's standing behind an electric fan, that's Auto-Tune--but it's not the way Hildebrand meant it to be used. The program's retune speed, which adjusts the singer's voice, can be set from zero to 400. "If you set it to 10, that means that the output pitch will get halfway to the target pitch in 10 milliseconds," says Hildebrand. "But if you let that parameter go to zero, it finds the nearest note and changes the output pitch instantaneously"--eliminating the natural transition between notes and making the singer sound jumpy and automated. "I never figured anyone in their right mind would want to do that," he says.

Like other trends spawned by Cher, the creative abuse of Auto-Tune quickly went out of fashion, although it continued to be an indispensable, if inaudible, part of the engineer's toolbox. But in 2003, T-Pain (Faheem Najm), a little-known rapper and singer, accidentally stumbled onto the Cher effect while Auto-Tuning some of his vocals. "It just worked for my voice," says T-Pain in his natural Tallahassee drawl. "And there wasn't anyone else doing it."

Since his 2005 debut album, T-Pain has sent a dozen slightly raunchy, mechanically cheery singles into the Top 10. He contributed to four nominated songs at this year's Grammys on Feb. 8 (see page 51), and his influence is still spreading. When Kanye West was looking for an effect to match some heartbroken lyrics, he flew T-Pain to Hawaii to see how many ways they could tweak Auto-Tune. Diddy gave a percentage of his upcoming album's profits to T-Pain in exchange for some lessons. Even Prince is rumored to be experimenting with Auto-Tune on his new record. "I know [Auto-Tune] better than anyone," says T-Pain. "And even I'm just figuring out all the ways you can use it to change the mood of a record." (See pictures of Diddy.)

Other sonic tricks have had their moment--notably Peter Frampton's "talk- box," a plastic tube that made his guitar sound as if it were talking--but in skilled hands, Auto-Tune is the rare gimmick that can lead to innovation. On T-Pain's latest album, Thr33 Ringz, tracks like "Karaoke" and "Chopped N Skrewed" literally bounce between notes, giving the record a kids-on--Pop Rocks exuberance. Using the same program, West's 808s & Heartbreak is the complete opposite--angsty, slow and brutally introspective. West sings throughout, and while he couldn't have hit most of the notes without Auto-Tune, he also couldn't have sounded as ghostly and cold, and it's that alienated tone that made 808s one of the best albums of last year.

Plenty of critics raved about West's use of Auto-Tune, but T-Pain is often dismissed as a novelty act. (Not that he minds: "I'd rather be known for something than unknown for nothing.") But unlike most singers, he acknowledges the impact Auto-Tune has had on his career. Of the half a dozen engineers and producers interviewed for this story, none could remember a pop recording session in the past few years when Auto-Tune didn't make a cameo--and none could think of a singer who would want that fact known. "There's no shame in fixing a note or two," says Jim Anderson, professor of the Clive Davis department of recorded music at New York University and president of the Audio Engineering Society. "But we've gone far beyond that."

Some Auto-Tuning is almost unavoidable. Most contemporary music is composed on Pro Tools, a program that lets musicians and engineers record into a computer and map out songs on a visual grid. You can cut at one point on the grid and paste at another, just as in word-processing, but making sure the cuts match up requires the even pitch that Auto-Tune provides. "It usually ends up just like plastic surgery," says a Grammy-winning recording engineer. "You haul out Auto-Tune to make one thing better, but then it's very hard to resist the temptation to spruce up the whole vocal, give everything a little nip-tuck." Like plastic surgery, he adds, more people have had it than you think. "Let's just say I've had Auto-Tune save vocals on everything from Britney Spears to Bollywood cast albums. And every singer now presumes that you'll just run their voice through the box."

Rubin, who's produced artists as diverse as the Dixie Chicks and Metallica, worries that the safety net of Auto-Tune is making singers lazy. "Sometimes a singer will do lots of takes when they're recording a song, and you really can hear the emotional difference when someone does a great performance vs. an average one," says Rubin. "If you're pitch-correcting, you might not bother to make the effort. You might just get it done and put it through the machine so it's all in tune." Rubin has taken to having an ethical conversation before each new recording session. "I encourage artists to embrace a natural process," he says. (See pictures of Rick Rubin.)

With the exception of Milli Vanilli's, pop listeners have always been fairly indulgent about performers' ethics. It's hits that matter, and the average person listening to just one pop song on the radio will have a hard time hearing Auto-Tune's impact; it's effectively deceptive. But when track after track has perfect pitch, the songs are harder to differentiate from one another--which explains why pop is in a pretty serious lull at the moment. It also changes the way we hear unaffected voices. "The other day, someone was talking about how Aretha Franklin at the Inauguration was a bit pitchy," says Anderson. "I said, 'Of course! She was singing!' And that was a musician talking. People are getting used to hearing things dead on pitch, and it's changed their expectations."

Despite Randy Jackson's stock American Idol critique--"A little pitchy, dawg"--many beloved songs are actually off-pitch or out of tune. There's Ringo Starr on "With a Little Help from My Friends," of course, and just about every blues song slides into notes as opposed to hitting them dead on. Even Norah Jones, the poster girl of pure vocals, isn't perfect. "There's some wonderful imperfections of pitch on 'Don't Know Why' from Come Away with Me," says Anderson, "and most of the other tunes on the album as well. But I wouldn't want to change a single note."

Let's hope that pop's fetish for uniform perfect pitch will fade, even if the spread of Auto-Tune shows no signs of slowing. A $99 version for home musicians was released in November 2007, and T-Pain and Auto-Tune's parent company are finishing work on an iPhone app. "It's gonna be real cool," says T-Pain. "Basically, you can add Auto-Tune to your voice and send it to your friends and put it on the Web. You'll be able to sound just like me." Asked if that might render him no longer unique, T-Pain laughs: "I'm not too worried. I got lots of tricks you ain't seen yet. It's everybody else that needs to step up their game."

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Ten of the Best Star Wars Parody, Remix and Mash-Up Videos

Published by Sub-Zero


Perhaps no film series has inspired more parody than Star Wars. An endless legion of fans means an endless amount of remixes and mash-ups, and for the truly die hard, costumes, scripts and special effects. Here are ten of my favorite, in no particular order.

1) The Injured Stormtrooper

“Has this ever happened before?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

2) Darth Vader Feels Blue

Wait for it.

3) Troops

An extensive budget (relatively speaking) yields one of the better videos on this list, that actually fills in some holes from the original films.4) Benny Hill Battle of Naboo

I actually think that all of Phantom Menace could have been filmed like this and the film wouldn’t have lost anything.

5) Death Star Canteen

This is a bit adapted from a rather hilarious Eddie Izzard stand-up bit. Please try to ignore the worst Darth Vader costume ever.

6) Chad Vader, Day Shift Manager

The most famous parody out of all of them. I still don’t know how they did the voice to such perfection.

7) Star Wars Gangsta Rap

I remember listening to this like back in middle school, but with the new accompanying video, it’s better than ever.

8 ) Stormtrooper Help Desk

Is the armor really necessary for cubicle life?

9 ) Star Wars vs. Star Trek

Not just any ordinary mash-up, this is very well done. Picard v. Vader is one for the ages.

10) Darth Vader Being a Smartass


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10 Things Science Fiction Got Wrong

Posted by Alex in Bathroom Reader,

Most of the time we're willing to shovel down the popcorn and watch Yoda lift X-Wings out of the swamp using nothing but the Force and a smattering of questionably parsed English, or let Jean-Luc Picard get the Enterprise out of a scrape by the convenient discovery of yet another type of particle beam. But every once in a while we just have to vent about some of the truly egregious "fiction" in science fiction.

1. Sounds in Space

The tag line from Alien got it right: "In Space, no one can hear you scream". The reason no one can hear you scream is that sound needs air to travel in, and there's none in space.

Most of space is a hard vacuum, with a molecule or two of hydrogen floating around in every cubic meter - not nearly enough to transmit sound. Every sound in the movies, from photon torpedoes and laser beams to exploding starships and hyperspace booms, would never happen in real life.

For that matter, you'd never see laser beams in space either, since in a vacuum there's no medium to reveal them. So a real-life laser dog fight in space would be really boring to watch.

2. Faster-Than-Light Travel

Warp drives and hyperspace are very useful in science fiction, but there's one catch. According to Einstein, the speed of light isn't just a good idea, it's the law. Nothing can go faster than the speed of light in a vacuum (that's about 186,000 miles per second).

Even inching toward the speed of light is difficult - immense energy is required to get to even a fraction of the speed of light, and the closer you get to the speed of light, the more energy is required. The amount of energy you'd need to achieve the speed of light is infinite (i.e., more than you've got, even with those supercool long-lasting batteries). So just tossing in a few more dilithium crystals into the warp drives isn't going to make it happen.

There are loopholes in our understanding of the physics that make faster-than-light travel theoretically possible. For example, it's theoretically possible to create a "bubble" of space that breaks itself off from other space and moves faster than light relative to that space (all the while everything inside both "spaces" moves no faster than the speed of light). This is known as an Alcubierre Warp Bubble. The catch (there had to be one) is that these bubbles require the existence of exotic matter that has negative energy, and wouldn't you know, there isn't really any lying around, and it's not clear that any actually exists.

3. Laser Bolts You Can Dodge

Aside from the issue of Imperial Stormtroopers being bad shots, let's review a fundamental fact of light (which is what lasers are): It travels at 186,000 miles per second. So the idea of ducking before the laser hits you is just plain silly.

Not to mention (of course) the idea of a laser bolt being visible as a streak that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you were zapped by a laser from a laser gun, it would look like a single stream of light, with one end attached to the barrel of said gun, and the end attached to whatever portion of your head had not melted yet (assuming you're having a laser battle somewhere where there is enough air around to illuminate the entire beam).

Most "laser" beams in science fiction movies travel slower than bullets do today. Let's see Obi Wan whip his light saber around fast enough to stop the spray of a Mac-10 (and let's not even begin to talk about all the things wrong with a sword made of light).

4. Human-Looking Aliens

This is endemic on the various Star Trek series, where creatures from entirely different sectors of the universe look just like humans except for the occasional bulging ridge on their foreheads. Yes, this is the result of having only humans at casting calls, but in a large sense, all these "humanoid" variations ain't gonna happen.

Look, humans evolved on earth and shared a basic body format (four limbs, one head, side-to-side symmetry) with just about every other vertebrate on the planet. It's a form that works fine for this planet, but not even every vertebrate sticks with it (see: snakes, whales, seals, etc).

Given that any planet with life on it will have that life evolve in it's own way, the chances of the universe being stocked with chesty alien princesses who crave human starship captains is slim at best.

Related to this is the following.

5. Half-Breed Aliens

Humans don't even interbreed with other species here on earth. Our DNA is simply too different from other species to allow such a mating to produce offspring.

Given this, what are the chances of successful mating with an alien species that may not even have DNA as its genetic encoding medium?

Also going back to the idea that aliens probably won't look like Humans, how would you do it anyway? It's not exactly the "Insert Tab A Into Slot B" proposition it would be here at home.

6. Brain-Sucking Aliens

The Good News of an Alien Facehugger Attack T-Shirt, art by Mike Jacobsen

Ditto aliens that control your body by using your brains, or gestate in your chest, or whatnot. Let's posit that any creature that controls the brain of any other creature (not that any exist here on Earth) does so only after a few million years of what's called "speciation" – i.e., one species eventually enters a symbiotic relationship with another species. This relationship would have to be pretty specific, as symbiotic relationships are here on Earth.

Which is to say just because you're in a symbiotic relationship with one species doesn't mean it transfers over to another species, especially an alien species, who's body chemistry, DNA, brain wiring, etc., isn't even remotely close to your own. So don't worry about the "Puppet Master" scenario too much, or that you'll be nothing more than a glorified egg sac for some nasty breed of space monster.

7. Shape-Shifting Aliens

Shape-changing aliens are all very well, but there's a tiny problem in having a roughly human sized lump of alien protoplasm turning itself into, say, a rat, to scurry around in the ventilation shaft: Where does rest of the alien go? You can't just make 99% of your mass disappear into thin air (or reappear, as the case may be); it has to go somewhere.

Unless that "rat" is running around with a highly compressed mass of a human-sized object (which presents its own problems), shape-shifting in to different sized objects is not very likely (one of the smart things about Terminator 2 was that the T-1000 only shape shifted into things of roughly the same mass, like human beings or a floor).

8. Time Travel

Got an itch to spend time in the Arthurian England? Or perhaps Gettysburg during the Civil War?

The same relativistic principles that keep us from going faster than light also keep us rom traveling backward in time and messing with the past. It's possible to slow down time - the closer you get to the speed of light, the slower time moves for you relative to your original frame of reference - but to get the clock spinning in the other direction would require you to go faster than light, and you can't do that.

Again, there are theoretical loopholes that could allow it - worm holes, actually, which are "tunnels" in the fabric of space-time that could possibly allow travel back in time. but once again, keeping these wormholes open would require exotic matter with negative energy. Got any? Neither do we.

9. The Planetary Gravity Scam

Everywhere you go in science fiction, people are walking around like they weigh just what they do on Earth. Chances of that happening in the real universe? Slim. Consider our own solar system. On Mars, a 180-pound man would weigh just 70 pounds; on Jupiter, 424 pounds (not that you can walk on Jupiter, as it has no solid surface). That man on the moon? Just 30 pounds. The man's mass is the same, it's just that different planets have different gravitational pulls.

The idea that all the planets that humans might visit would exactly match Earth's own gravitational profile is a little much. As is, alternately, the idea that all alien creatures would be as comfortable in our gravitational field as we are.

10 The Planetary Sameness Principle

Tatooine looks just like the Yuma Desert in Arizona. Actually, it is the Yuma Desert of Arizona! Photo via Wookieepedia

The desert planet of Tatooine. The ice planet of Hoth. The jungle planet of Dagobah. What do these planets all have in common? One planetary-wide ecosystem. Which isn't too likely.

Our own planet has varying zones and ecological areas: desert, tundra, jungle, and so on; other planets in the system also show marked zones of varying atmospheric and weather patterns. Mars has ice caps as well as (relatively) temperate zones; Jupiter has distinct weather systems based in different areas on its globe. The planets that show a sameness are the ones we couldn't live on. Venus is all desert, but that's because a runaway greenhouse effect makes it hot enough to melt lead. Pluto is all ice, but it's so far away from the Sun that its atmosphere freezes for most of its orbit.

There may well be purely desert or jungle planets, but most planets we'd want to live on would probably be able to accommodate both.

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Scene stealer: The aXXo files

MAMMA MIA! The adaptation of the Abba musical, starring Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, has taken more than $500m worldwide since its July release date. aXXo posted his DVD-quality version online on 15 December.

MAMMA MIA! The adaptation of the Abba musical, starring Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, has taken more than $500m worldwide since its July release date. aXXo posted his DVD-quality version online on 15 December.

At 8.40am on Monday 15 December, a new post appeared on an internet forum called the Darkside Release Group. "Darkside_RG" is a clearing house for internet pirates, a site dedicated to the online redistribution of movies, music and videogames. Its members happily spend their days sharing and discussing their ill-begotten booty on the site's many message boards.

The post in question contained a BitTorrent file – the most widespread and efficient filesharing method on the web – containing an illicit copy of a second-rate Kiefer Sutherland horror film called Mirrors. Though the mainstream media ignored it, this was a landmark moment for millions of filesharers worldwide: the 1,000th movie uploaded by aXXo, the internet's most popular and enduring pirate. If you already know his name, chances are you've been doing something illegal.

This aXXo may be anonymous, but he (or she, or they) is a global brand. His most popular uploads are downloaded illegally by up to a million internet users per week. His files regularly make up more than one-third of all the films trafficked on BitTorrent. Most of them are mainstream multiplex fare – aXXo's recent posts include Mamma Mia!; the Ricky Gervais black comedy Ghost Town; and Bangkok Dangerous and Eagle Eye, thriller vehicles for Nicolas Cage and Shia LaBeouf.

The list of the Top 100 movie downloads at The Pirate Bay – one of the largest "torrent portal" sites, which aggregate torrent links from around the web – is littered with his work, easily recognisable by the suffix "DVDrip-aXXo" left like a graffiti tag at the end of each filename. Over at The Pirate Bay's most popular competitor,, aXXo's fame is evident in the "search cloud", a page of the most searched terms on the site, their relative popularity denoted by the size of the font in which their names are displayed.

"Today, the largest search terms might be aXXo and Prison Break, if Prison Break aired on US television last night," explains David Price, head of piracy intelligence at the internet consultancy Envisional. "But tomorrow Prison Break will be a lot smaller, whereas aXXo will always be that size. Over the last two years, he's been one of the top five searched terms on Mininova every day."

Whenever aXXo posts a new film (which can be as often as three times a day) his followers fill the comments boards with praise. He is the lowly film-fan's Robin Hood. Last year, one aXXo fan, codenamed the_dwarfer, composed a version of the Lord's Prayer for his idol, which began: "Our ripper, who art on Mininova, aXXo be thy name..."

The name aXXo first appeared in November 2005, when he began to post pirated movies to the message board at Darkside_RG. He quickly acquired a reputation for both quality and convenience. All of his films were copied to DVD quality (or near enough for the amateur eye); in a simple format that would play instantly on almost any computer as soon as the download was complete; and handily compressed to emerge at 700Mb, just the right size to fit on a single writeable CD.

Uploaders generally have a shelf life of a few months before they get bored – or caught – but aXXo persisted. "aXXo guarantees quality," Price explains. "In the piracy world, there's no Film 2008 to tell you which version of a film to download. Instead, the community tells you that aXXo is the guy to look for, because everybody else downloads him. As soon as a DVD rip of a film appears online, people search out aXXo's copy, because they know they're guaranteed a good piracy experience."

The question of aXXo's identity is undoubtedly of interest to the authorities, but it's also an abiding obsession for his fans. One Canadian documentary film-maker, for example, is working on a film entitled Searching for aXXo. The blog is devoted to the torrent sharing culture. In March 2007, its creator, a 28-year-old academic from the Netherlands who writes under the pseudonym Ernesto, appeared to have landed a brief but exclusive email interview with the elusive aXXo. His interviewee claimed to be a teenager working alone, a naive but philanthropic soul who believed that, if a good film is out there, "everyone has the right to be entertained by it." The interview was quickly discredited by the ensuing web chatter, and Ernesto, asked today if he thinks his interviewee was a hoaxer or the real deal, replies curtly: "I have no idea." My own request for an email interview with aXXo, left in his Darkside_RG mailbox has gone unanswered.

The otherwise uninformative Darkside_RG profile for aXXo suggests he was born in August 1972. There's no reason why this should be true but, says Price: "I wouldn't have thought he was a teenager. Whoever claimed to be him was probably a fake. From what we know, he's fairly experienced." In a recent piece about aXXo for the online magazine Slate, reporter Josh Levin said he believed aXXo was not American – but, Price suggests, he is probably a native English speaker.

As with Operation Ore, the international police operation to prosecute users of online child pornography sites, the copyright cops are planting spies in the chatrooms and forums of the torrent community, hoping to ensnare the pirates who frequent them. The ultimate prize would be aXXo. Envisional's work, says Price, has led to arrests in the past. "We have had successes searching for individual uploaders and leakers of content. With aXXo, we know where he tends to be active online. If you visited the right bulletin boards and forums, and you knew what to look out for, you would find other people who were searching for him."

BitTorrent, aXXo's chosen distribution method, is a filesharing technology that, serendipitously, arrived online at around the same time as home broadband became standard. Created in 2001 by Bram Cohen, then 26, a programmer from Seattle, the software was intended to be a means for music fans to share bootlegged videos of live performances by artists such as the US singer-songwriter John Mayer, who encourages such recordings by concert-goers.

Though the BitTorrent software itself is legal, and can be used to share any number of legitimate digital items, its efficiency and user-friendliness inevitably made it the amateur pirate's weapon of choice. Today, BitTorrent has well over 150 million users worldwide. "I'm studying social behaviour," explains Ernesto, "and the torrent community interested me because it is by far the largest library of our modern day culture. BitTorrent has a more social aspect than other filesharing protocols: sharing is rewarded."

Unlike traditional peer-to-peer (P2P) networks such as Napster and Kazaa, which share files directly (and rather slowly) between two users' computers, BitTorrent collects pieces of the downloading file from across the filesharing network, seeking out segments of the film, album or application from every user's computer. This "file-swarming" not only makes downloading faster, it's also the epitome of filesharing – the more users there are online, sharing a particular file, the faster each of them will complete the download.

Hence aXXo's popularity: as a trusted brand name, users rush to acquire his releases as soon as they appear online. His small "torrent" file takes a matter of seconds to download from a torrent portal site like Mininova, after which the user add it to their computer's BitTorrent queue, sit back and watch the data flood in. With so many people downloading the same files at once, an entire aXXo film can be complete and on a user's desktop in a few hours at most.

But aXXo's popularity can be a curse. Once his name became common currency among downloaders, it was simple enough for less sophisticated pirates to piggyback on his success by imitating his tag in their own torrent files; one site turned up calling itself There were also more sinister schemes afoot. In 2007, word spread through the community that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) was uploading fake, blank torrents labelled as aXXo releases, in order to collect the IP addresses of downloaders. Next, someone intent on giving him a bad name started to upload aXXo-tagged files filled with malware – software designed to infiltrate and corrupt a downloader's computer.

An angry aXXo got into a dispute with both and the torrent portals that chose to host his imitators. The pirate was infuriated by the appropriation of his work – in spite of appropriation being his own stock-in-trade – and ceased uploading altogether until agreed to close down its domain name.

Unlike other torrent portals, however, The Pirate Bay's Swedish founders – who are driven not by any code of honour among thieves, but by an ideological opposition to copyright law – refuse to give high-profile uploaders the VIP treatment. aXXo's protests fell on deaf ears and, in November 2007, after deleting all his torrents from The Pirate Bay's pages in a fit of rage, he disappeared from the web altogether. His friends at Darkside_RG reported that he'd decided to "take a break".

In aXXo's absence, other uploaders had their moment in the sun. FXG, whose DVD rips were about the same quality and size as aXXo's, became a popular alternative. One smart uploader named themselves Klaxxon, so that each time a casual downloader searched for aXXo's name, they would find a Klaxxon torrent instead. Perhaps concerned that he'd been forgotten by his fickle public, aXXo resurfaced in March.

"He tried to go away," says Price. "But he came back. The pull of it is quite attractive to him. When you have millions of people downloading your content online and they know who you are, that's quite an incentive. Even if he's not getting any money, he is getting name recognition and status." To commemorate his return, aXXo chose as his first post the symbolic – and hubristic – film title, I Am Legend.

The authorities aren't the only ones who have it in for aXXo. He's also deeply unpopular among an elite group of internet users and abusers known only as "The Scene", which has existed in one form or another since the 1970s – before aXXo (the name, if not the man) was even born. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of illicit content available for download comes not from consumer-bought CDs, DVDs and games. Instead, film industry insiders, cinema projectionists, DVD factory workers and retail assistants plunder their employers' forthcoming releases and pass them on to the high-level pirates that comprise today's Scene.

The Scene's so-called "release groups" are at the top of the piracy pyramid. Each group will likely specialise in a certain medium (film, TV, games, music) – even a specific movie genre – and will include computer experts (or "rippers") with the skills to turn a two-hour movie into a compressed file that is easy to transfer online without any loss of quality. Once the release group has their copy, they seed it online with the help of enthusiastic mediators. Within hours, it is freely available to the average BitTorrent user on The Pirate Bay or Mininova.

The Scene's motivations aren't financial. The object of the exercise is simply to get your pirate copy of a film out there before any other group, and well ahead of its official release. Respect and reputation are earned through speed and technical skill. The Scene may be elite, but it's a meritocracy. Its code – again, ironic for a group engaged in the systematic demolition of copyright law – demands that any pirated material must give credit to its original ripper or release group, no matter how far down the piracy food chain it has come.

This explains the Scene's contempt for aXXo, who, it is widely believed, simply duplicates work that has already been produced by a higher-level release group. His re-encoding of the Scene's film releases into a clean, user-friendly format requires relatively little risk, and relatively little skill. In a world where the only reward is prestige, it must be galling for the Scene to watch aXXo taking the credit for their hard work. It also explains aXXo's motivations, and his anger at seeing his name taken in vain. Like Bruce Wayne, aXXo may only be celebrated for the actions of his alter ego, but he is celebrated all the same.

Industry insiders claim that illegal downloads cost the global film business £500m last year. According to a 2006 study by Envisional, P2P networks and their ilk account for at least 60 per cent of all internet usage. In the UK alone, more than six million people shared an estimated 98 million illegal downloads in 2007. These numbers will only grow as broadband speeds increase. Virgin Media recently launched the first 50Mb broadband service, and hopes to make it available to the entire UK customer network of 12 million in 2009. At that speed, a DVD-quality movie could be downloaded to a home desktop in less than four minutes.

Earlier this month, an estimable group of disgruntled British film-makers – including Kenneth Branagh, Richard Curtis and Stephen Daldry – signed a letter to The Times demanding government action against the internet service providers (ISPs) who make illegal filesharing possible. The MPAA, meanwhile, is already lobbying the incoming Obama administration in the US to improve internet filtering technology in the hope of foiling online piracy. Thanks to new legislation, President Obama will be required to nominate the country's first "copyright tsar" to oversee such issues.

The biggest problem for anti-piracy groups is the growing social acceptability of illegal filesharing. "The easier you make it for people to download, the more people do it," says Price, "and the less moral or ethical concerns they have about it. I talk to teachers and solicitors who'll say they streamed something from the internet, without realising it's illegitimate." The entertainment industry is still seen as bloated and greedy. Downloading movies is an apparently victimless crime, and if there is a victim, it's "The Man".

"We also never see how their data is calculated," says Becky Hogge, executive director of the Open Rights Group, a civil liberties group devoted to the digital universe. "Policymakers trot out figures, but we're never sure of their provenance. There is a meme sloshing around that suggests they overestimate the numbers. They used to equate the cost of piracy to the [entertainment] industry as a multiple of how many files were being shared illicitly online, which assumes that if you didn't get the stuff for free, you'd go out and buy all of it – which simply doesn't hold."

It's even difficult to prove the pirates' detrimental effect on individual films. The most pirated movie of 2008, according to TorrentFreak's annual listing, was also the year's biggest box-office success: Batman sequel The Dark Knight. The film's cinema release grossed close to $1bn (£700m) worldwide, and three million copies of the DVD were sold on its first day in the shops. Although it was downloaded more than seven million times on BitTorrent alone, Ernesto reported in his accompanying post, comments on various sites suggest that many of the downloaders had also paid to see the film at the cinema.

One enthusiastic, London-based torrent-user who preferred to remain anonymous estimates that he downloads around four or five films each week (including The Dark Knight). However, he says, "I pay to go to the cinema at least once a week. I very rarely buy DVDs, but then who does? Most of my friends prefer to subscribe to DVD rental sites like Lovefilm. Ownership of the physical artefact seems increasingly moot.

"I do have qualms about it, but it's a two-way street. The commercial cinema is increasingly homogenic; there are hundreds of films that never get decent distribution, and now I have a platform to see them. For example, I waited months for Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain to come out in the cinemas – when it finally did, it screened on three or four screens spread across Greater London, none of them for more than a week. Roughly a month later it was online."

The Dark Knight's internet leak followed a standard pirate release pattern: immediately after the film's July premiere, a "cammed" version, filmed secretly from a seat in the theatre, dropped onto the web. Next, in early September, a DVD-screener copy (with the film interrupted at intervals by title cards announcing a copyright breach) made its way online. Finally, in November, a few weeks before the DVD was due in stores, the DVD-quality pirate copy (aXXo's speciality) appeared, was appropriated by aXXo, and soon spread across the net like wildfire.

In an article written for in January, Matt Mason, author of The Pirate's Dilemma, wrote that "when pirates enter our market spaces, we have two choices. We can throw lawsuits at them and hope they go away. Sometimes this is the best thing to do. But what if those pirates are adding value to society in some way?... In these cases, what pirates are actually doing is highlighting a better way for us to do things; they find gaps outside the market, and better ways for society to operate. In these situations the only way to fight piracy is legitimise and legalise new innovations by competing with pirates in the marketplace."

Mason's book demonstrates that the history of piracy is also a history of innovation, one that includes the names Thomas Edison (inventor of the record player) and William Fox (founder of Hollywood). Ernesto agrees: "The ever-increasing piracy rates show there is a demand that the entertainment industry has not satisfied. Thanks to the internet, access to media on demand has become reality, and people seem to love it. It's now up to the movie and music industry to come up with a model that can compete with these filesharing networks."

iTunes has proved that the music industry can compete with a parallel black market online. In the US,, a website set up by the major television networks to stream their programming online, has done the same. Project Kangaroo, the UK equivalent, is currently in the works. "If it's very easy to find and has a lot of content, people will use it," says Price. "Hulu is bringing in huge amounts of advertising revenue for the TV companies, and it's bringing people back from the piracy networks."

"The entertainment industry would make more for artists if it embraced these technologies and found ways of doing business online," Hogge argues. "When you have six million people breaking the law, it's the law that needs changing, not the people."

Anti-piracy activists have celebrated some small victories, with trials pending in Sweden and the Netherlands for the creators of The Pirate Bay and Mininova respectively. But neither site actually hosts torrent files; as portals, they merely point the way to them – and there's no guarantee that the law will find a way to penalise them for it. Meanwhile, new torrent portals will spring up in their place, and as long as the authorities focus on the sites rather than individual uploaders (prosecuting individual downloaders has brought record companies almost nothing but bad PR), they will do little to stem the torrents' flow. The outlets may be closed down, but the aXXo brand can just move on elsewhere.

The internet makes power-brokers of the most unlikely people. Harry Knowles, a portly, 37-year-old film fanatic from Austin, Texas, became the web's most influential film critic after he was accidentally run over by a 1,200lb cart full of memorabilia at a science fiction convention in 1994. While bedridden, he bought a new computer and set up his own movie website, Ain't It Cool News, which today has the power to sink a film with a negative review before it even reaches cinemas.

Andrew Sorcini, aka MrBabyMan, is an animator for Disney in Los Angeles, who spends his days (and possibly his nights) recommending articles and webpages on the news aggregator website Digg. As the site's most popular recommender of content, he wields the same influence as the editor of a major newspaper.

But MrBabyMan and Harry Knowles haven't the mystique of aXXo. They're flesh and blood. You can find their faces on Google. Their fame may be remarkable, but they achieved it straightforwardly – and legally. The abilities of aXXo, on the other hand, seem almost superhuman. To his followers, he is Robin Hood, Batman, God: he is everywhere, and nowhere.

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SHOWBIZ SHOCKER! EXCLUSIVE DETAILS! DreamWorks Desperately Seeking $250M: Secretly Tries To Make Disney Play But Loses Universal Deal In The Process;


4TH (AND TODAY'S FINAL) UPDATED WRITETHRU:I hear DreamWorks' deal with Disney is done and will be announced on Monday. But, wait, didn't DreamWorks already hype a distribution pact with Universal just four months ago? I can report exclusively that financially desperate DreamWorks needed $250 million -- $100M immediately and $150M later in the second tranche -- to save its foundering Bollywood partnership. So Stacey Snider and Steven Spielberg demanded to change the terms of their deal with Universal already announced to the world so it would now include straight distribution and a $250M investment. But Universal balked. The studio was very reluctant to even invest $100M.

But there's also another side to this. Spielberg was irritated that Universal came to him asking to renegotiate his longstanding 2% theme parks deal dating back to the days when Lew Wasserman/Sid Sheinberg controlled the studio. These days, that's worth $50 million a year to the director. And Universal also asked to delay for 5 years Spielberg's '"put" deal -- his right to have the studio buy him out of the parks deal in a year. But it was also just one of a laundry list of blue sky terms that Universal asked for on the very first day of negotiations, just like DreamWorks had its own laundry list of blue sky terms. When Spielberg balked, Uni took back the proposal within 24 hours. So this was far from the "straw that broke the camel's back" of the DW-Uni bargaining.

As the negotiations dragged on for weeks, that's when DreamWorks began secret talks with Disney, which by all accounts would be a more strategic and enthusiastic partner. I first found out about the DreamWorks/Disney talks two months ago. I kept quiet because they were still formative. But then last night I was alerted that a deal between them was "imminent" -- to my amazement, especially given the rancorous history between both companies dating back 15 years. So I did what any journalist does: I began to chase the story. DreamWorks suddenly began ducking my calls because Disney wasn't ready to go public with any deal. And because Snider/Spielberg have been moving heaven and earth to make sure no one in the media found out the true details of just what a fiscal crisis their company is in. Also last night, I confirmed that Universal didn't even know that any DreamWorks talks were going on with Disney much less in the final stages until I asked about them. You see, DreamWorks had hoped to play Disney and Universal off one another and snag the best deal for itself within the next 48 hours.

I have now learned that, Thursday night, a flurry of memos and calls were exchanged between Universal and DreamWorks about where exactly their deal stood vis a vis the one in the works at Disney. Finally, this morning, Universal got sick and tired of it all and pulled out. "We weren't going further. This deal got to the point where it's not in our interest," a furious Universal bigwig told me. "And then when you learn they're negotiating behind your back, it reflects upon what kind of partners you're getting into business with." A DreamWorks insider replies, "Everybody has the right in business to change the rules of the game. Universal is understandably upset. But there are no victims and no villains. It became very clear at the end of the day that DreamWorks had a better deal with Disney."

I've also learned that, today, Snider phoned Universal Studios prez/COO Ron Meyer to apologize. "We had to do this. Our backs were against the wall. We couldn't tell anyone about our discussions with Disney." To which Meyer replied, "What you did was wrong on every level. You guys behaved like pigs." I have since heard that Snider, who was once Meyer's lieutenant, is deeply offended he called her that. But that's a relationship torn asunder. Especially amazing because Uni and DW used to be such pals.

But this is not the first time DreamWorks went behind Uni's back. First, DreamWorks 1.0 negotiated until the 11th hour to sell itself to Uni's parent company General Electric until the big conglomerate tried to roll back terms at the last minute. So DreamWorks wrapped up a quick negotiation with Paramount and let Universal know about it after the fact. And Universal had to hear from others that Spielberg was hiring away Snider to be DreamWorks chief. So this was the third strike.

But Hollywood is a town where relationships are more important than numbers. And to see this level of animosity between two former partners, DreamWorks and Universal, is rare indeed. Then again, it happened to DreamWorks 1.0 and its owner Viacom/ Paramount as well. The war of words between Sumner Redstone and David Geffen, for instance, had Hollywood transfixed since their companies' marriage deteriorated almost immediately and then resulted in divorce. Paramount sat back quietly today watching the Universal/DreamWorks mess unfold. "It justifies everything they went through for the last 2 1/2 years," one insider tells me. "You have to know that Brad Grey and Rob Moore must be the happiest people in the world."

DreamWorks 2.0 immediately spent all day today at Disney finalizing terms so that the deal could be announced on Monday. Given Disney's reputation for hard-nosed negotiations, it's dicey that without a rival bidder Disney gave DreamWorks everything it wanted. But I have no doubt that the deal is better than what Universal was offering. (That's certainly true regarding pay slots; more on that below.)

Although not part of the DreamWorks discussions, I've also been hearing for months that the Mouse House has been wanting to "unload" Miramax, and my sources believe that the DreamWorks deal will light a fire under Disney to sell the specialty unit that once belonged to Harvey and Bob Weinstein.

Here's the Universal statement: "Universal Pictures has ended discussions with DreamWorks for a distribution agreement. Over the past several weeks DreamWorks has demanded material changes to previously agreed upon terms. It is clear that DreamWorks' needs and Universal’s business interests are no longer in alignment. We wish them luck in their pursuit of funding and distribution of their future endeavors.‬‪‬‪"

DreamWorks has yet to give out a statement. That will be done in a joint press release with Disney Monday.

Dreamworks 2.0 has been haunted by the worldwide financial crisis which has delayed the contemplated bank financing it needs to complete its big Bollywood deal and raise a total of about $1.25 billion in equity and debt. Right now, DreamWorks has claimed it has half the necessary lender commitments -- supposedly $150 million of the first phase of the $325 million bank syndication -- before it can secure a matching contribution by biz partner Reliance Big Entertainment based in Mumbai, India. DreamWorks insiders keep expressing confidence publicly that the other half of the money will come in by March 31st. But that was much later than originally planned and now Hollywood knows the extent of the jitters -- and it's not just because Spielberg is personally funding his new company's overhead alongside Reliance. Now it becomes clear that DreamWorks understandably is desperate to lay its hands on all the money it can and by any means possible. "Less senior financing means less equity financing from Reliance. Less overall capital means less films and less overhead," says one of my film financing sources. "Spielberg and Snider finally realized they didn't have enough rope."

Here's what happened: Suddenly, because of its financing crisis, DreamWorks 2.0 decided that its straight distribution deal announced with Universal wouldn't be enough to save its Reliance partnership. So then Dreamworks went to Universal with demands for an investment of $250 million as well as distribution. You see, Dreamworks still does not have any formal agreement with Universal which is something of a surprise after all this time. But it's because DreamWorks kept making more and more demands for overhead, production, and ultimately investment money. That isn't what Uni bargained for so negotiations have been dragging on for weeks. "Universal is trying to resolve what they need. But it's a lot more money than the studio is willing to give them," one of my sources says before the proverbial shit hit the fan. Another tells me, "The deal for Universal isn't as attractive as before. What was once free is now going to cost."

One huge factor that affected the deal is that DreamWorks originally said it would be coming with its own HBO deal. Those pay slots are very valuable in Hollywood so Universal was counting on that. But then DreamWorks quietly confided that it couldn't make the HBO deal so now wanted to make use of Universal's pay slots. Even though it didn't want to, Universal stepped up and agreed. But next DreamWorks confided that it was not able to raise its bank financing to partner with Reliance so now demanded investment money from Universal. DreamWorks' number kept changing up and down, early and late in the financing. Finally, they asked for $250 million from Universal. After a lot of hemming and hawing, Uni came back with an offer of just $100 million.

Here's the thinking that went into the offer. First, Spielberg gets the richest gross deals in Hollywood. "So rich that when he finally does a movie with you, you can't make any money," one insider complains. He was offering no collateral. And Universal conducted so-called "Monte Carlo's", an analysis of the probable scenario of the returns on a future slate of motion pictures. The studio decided that those DreamWorks projections under the current circumstances did not look very favorable. It would not, and could not, give DreamWorks more of a deal.

At Disney, meanwhile, CEO Bob Iger has wanted to be in biz with Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider since they started thinking about leaving Paramount. I do know it was David Geffen's first choice for DreamWorks 2.0 (followed closely by Fox, and Universal only a distant 3rd), but he couldn't talk Spielberg out of "going back home" to Universal where the director's Amblin office has long been on the lot. DreamWorks 2.0 would be especially enticing to Disney because Spielberg/Snider are planning to make only about 6 films a year (though with their current financing that figure has dropped down to 2 or 3 a year), and Disney is now rolling out just 12 pics annually -- the least of any of the majors -- so it could use more product. Whereas Universal already puts out a slate of 17 films annually so has more than enough in the pipeline. Plus, Spielberg personally has always loved Disney's family fare and admired Disney's incredible marketing machine worldwide, so there's tremendous synergy there. "The Disney deal has always been strategically better on paper," one DreamWorks insider tells me.

Even better, Disney has a pay deal with Starz for virtually unlimited slots so that suited DreamWorks as well.

More Disney synergy is that Spielberg has tremendous interest in the theme parks business and its creative possibilities.

So all in all, this is a scenario that no one, least of all me, could ever have anticipated. One of the reasons DreamWorks 1.0 began was because Jeffrey Katzenberg was passed over for the presidency of Disney by then chairman/CEO Michael Eisner. After that, the two companies competed bitterly for bragging rights in animation. Now, Katzenberg is ensconced at DreamWorks Animation which is a publicly held company with distribution from Paramount and separation from DreamWorks 2.0. And Steven Spielberg is about to make his professional home at Disney. Even though his offices will probably stay at Universal like they always have. For at least awhile. Go figure.

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Interview: Henry Selick, Director of CORALINE

Posted by Turk182 in Features

Quick – Who directed Nightmare Before Christmas? Most people incorrectly answer “Tim Burton." Granted, it was his vision originally, but director Henry Selick brought it to life in a film that many people still hold dear to their heart. Selick returns this week with a film likely to find a similar cult following, Coraline, the story of a young girl who finds a secret door in her house to an alternate world. Selick, who bears a striking resemblance to Jack Skellington (tall, thin, a little pale), is a gentle, fascinating man, who sat down with MovieRetriever to talk about his latest stop-motion heroine, making movies in 3D, and even a potential new DVD release for James and the Giant Peach. (Thanks to Peter Sobczynski of who conducted this interview with us.)

- Brian Tallerico


MOVIE RETRIEVER: Seeing as how stop-motion animation has always been a rarefied version of that particular art form, how was it that you found yourself specializing in the format in the first place?

HENRY SELICK: I didn’t come into animation until I was already in college. I was in the arts, doing lots and lots of drawings, painting, sculpture and music - I loved all these things and wanted to find a way to combine them. Then I happened to see a short film that combined a couple of different styles of animation and it had all the things that I was interested in. It took a while for me to settle on stop-motion but even in my sculpture days, I was doing figures that had joints that I could repose - people would be in a room looking at other things and I would carefully make slight adjustments to see if they noticed. In my photos, I could never settle on one picture, so I would do a series of photos and that was almost like animation. I did a lot of 2-D work - I got a job at Disney and it was very challenging for me because I wasn’t one of those Disney animators who had grown up with them. I got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts while I was at Disney, and I did a film where I did more stop-motion than I ever had - large figures sitting by a pool having discussions about the story. Finally, after leaving Disney, I moved to the Bay Area and I really started getting into stop-motion animation. I did a bunch of work for MTV doing station IDs during the late 1980s. That is where I found myself - I had low budgets but freedom as long as I put the logo on at the end. I was just finding myself engaged in stop-motion pretty much all of the time - I did some commercials as well - and then I reconnected with Tim Burton years after knowing him at Disney and then we did Nightmare Before Christmas.

MOVIE RETRIEVER: In the production notes, it says “He loved unusual and scary animation” - can you speak specifically about what you liked?

SELICK: I don’t know if it was the first film I saw or the first one that I remember but I saw Ray Harryhausen’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad when I was four or five, and I dreamed about the stop-motion cyclops in that for years. That probably planted the seed that I was eventually drawn back to because that was one of my favorites. Why did I like it? I think every kid likes a good scare. It was magic, it was terrifying and it felt real because it wasn’t drawn. Among the Disney things, I loved “Night on Bald Mountain” from Fantasia and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” I liked Disney’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Growing up, I also saw this local kids TV show that had taken the world’s first animated feature, which they probably got for a dollar, called The Adventures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reiniger, and, I later figured out, had just cut it up into little pieces and would show them as shorts. I saw those when I was very young and was absolutely mesmerized by these beautiful silhouettes cut-outs.

MOVIE RETRIEVER: I was seeing another screening of a family movie and the preview for Coraline came up and there was a family behind me where the kids were maybe 7 and 10. The kids said that it looked fun and the parents said that it looked too scary. Do you think that parents can sometimes be too overprotective as to what their kids can handle in regards to the scares? I grew up with Roald Dahl and he was scary and you grew up with Sinbad. How old do you think kids should be to see this movie?

SELICK: We sort of figured 8 and up. It says PG, which means that the parents are supposed to know what works for their kids. It’s not just parents - it is the rating system and the ghetto of what animation is and what it is allowed to be. There are always some kids whose parents are more permissive and they are watching scarier stuff at home. TV animation is very adventurous and I am not just talking about stuff like Robot Chicken or South Park. The current version of Batman is dark - it is great and beautifully art-directed and that is what my 10-year-old loves the most. I think it is a strange thing, with movies in particular, that people want to pretend that it is 20 years ago and there is no Internet or adventurous animation on television - that is where we are being prevented from reaching kids. Neil always said that parents see the book as a sort of horror film for children but kids see it as more of an adventure.

MOVIE RETRIEVER: Of course, Coraline is not the only animated film that you have done to contain dark and scary moments - both The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach contained such elements as well. How difficult is it to get such material past the studios, who would presumably prefer to have something a little more conventionally cheerful and cuddly that they can more easily market? Do you still have conflicts with them even though the success of something like Nightmare Before Christmas would indicate that there is a market for such darker animated films?

SELICK: Always, and it is the same thing Neil faced. When I first read this, he didn’t have a publisher - he was a published author but it was always the same conflict of “it is too scary for kids and not scary enough for adults.” Neil and I always felt that it was just right and that it works for both - it is for brave children of all ages. There has been a constant fear that it is different when I think that the world is screaming for something different as long as it is good and well-done and original. I haven’t seen the film Waltz with Bashir yet but from what I have read and heard about it, regardless of how successful it is, I am just happy that someone in animation got the funding to take on that subject. Persepolis, The Triplets of Belleville - animation can be so much more than it is usually allowed to be. Obviously, if you are going to be more adventurous, you need to spend less money and we have - we can do a film like this for 1/3rd of the cost of a big CGI film.

I don’t have an answer about this conflict of taste - I just kept going on making the film that I was always going to make and we have had a really good response. Kids aren’t too scared - it is the parents that are more scared and that is always how that is.

MOVIE RETRIEVER: How involved was Neil Gaiman with the production of the film?

SELICK: Neil was not a constant collaborator. We learned early on that the guy is so smart and such a good writer that if he stayed too close, I couldn’t really do my job. My first draft of the screenplay was terrible because it was too much the book verbatim - it didn’t read like a film. I had to go off for nearly a year to do my second draft and introduce a character that wasn’t in the book and make adjustments that I thought made it more organic as a movie. That was the draft that he and the producers loved. I made a deal with Neil for him to do regular check-ins but I wanted to do a lot of work first. With the artwork and character designs, I wanted to get Coraline to a very good place before showing him and not have him look at a lot of preliminaries. That is how it has been throughout - same with the storyboards and the story. We did a lot of work and Neil has almost always had a positive response with maybe two or three notes that were always right and always doable. You couldn’t ask for a better association between an author and a filmmaker.

MOVIE RETRIEVER: From a technical standpoint, how much more of a challenge, if any, is it to shoot stop-motion animation using 3-D technology as opposed to conventional 2-D photography?

SELICK: There is an initial period of time of getting comfortable with the properties of 3-D and the management of the digital files, which can be very tricky. We shot digitally and used single cameras that would shoot the left eye and then move a little bit to shoot the right eye. The technical aspect was fairly challenging but for the artistic challenge, we just shot lots and lots of tests and sort of worked out a simple script for the film. It slowed things down a little because it takes time to do these left eye/right eye exposures and it impacts the rhythm of animating. Animators like to have an instant exposure in order to move things and keep it fluid. Ultimately, we all got used to it and sort of stuck to the script.

I wanted to draw people into the space and only rarely poke them in the eye. I’ve been interested in doing 3-D stop-motion for years, ever since I did a rock video 20 years ago with Lenny Lipton, the man who is behind modern 3-D in cinemas with the Real D company that he is now associated with. His early, primitive system is what I worked with and I kept up with Lenny and saw as he developed the process how it was getting better and better. That coincided with Coraline getting off her feet and turning into a film and now that system is going out into theaters.

MOVIE RETRIEVER: Do you see yourself permanently working with the 3-D process on your future animated projects or will it depend on whether the material suggests it?

SELICK: I would say that with stop-motion films, they should always be shot in 3-D and then you have a choice because what 3-D does for stop-motion, and this goes back all the way to the days of Viewmasters, is capture the fact that this stuff really exists. These are real puppets with real lights on a real set with real props. It captures the uniqueness of this medium - it takes the rarest form of animation and puts it front-and-center and I think it adds to its uniqueness. The worst thing would be if it just became a gimmick. There may be some stories where 3-D doesn’t really enhance the story very much and using it would just be forcing it but I would say shoot it in 3-D and you can just archive it that way and never release it like that.

MOVIE RETRIEVER: Have you had any thoughts about attempting another live-action movie at some point?

SELICK: No. The film that I did that turned out to be mainly live-action was one that I never intended to have go there. I am not as successful with live-action and I am not as comfortable with it as I am with stop-motion. Stop-motion animation is what I love most and where I feel my strongest at. Maybe if you have done live-action for years and work with the same crews, you have this loyalty and support right from the beginning but for me, it always seemed like “Who do you think you are, animation person?” It was a much more macho world than the world of stop-motion. The culture was very different from the one that I was more familiar and comfortable with.

MOVIE RETRIEVER: You’ve spoken of the technical challenges - what was the biggest artistic challenge of Coraline?

SELICK: Coraline was very hard to design. I worked with a lot of artists and there were a lot of very cartoony versions of Coraline. It took months and months and many different sculptures and trying to work out how she would be expressing things with her face took a very long time as well. There are two kinds of facial animation - replacement, where you basically do a new sculpture for every expression, and there is a mechanical process involving silicon skin over the sculpture to give new expressions. Both methods were employed and so it took months to figure out how to get her to be expressive enough but everything that we learned from her, we wound up applying to the other characters.

The look of the film was very tough and my original production designer couldn’t get there. I was working with concept art by a brilliant Japanese artist and if you look at his artwork, it is difficult to see how this film could have come from there. I had a vision and ultimately, I deputized three people in sets and models and made them art directors while I became a production designer. It was very difficult to get the look of this film right. The shapes of things, the textures - I wanted the materials on the sets to feel light and be translucent so that light could pass through them. I wanted them to be in scale with the puppets instead of the heavy and clunky things that you often get in stop-motion animation. We did a lot of experiments with materials led by Tom Proust, who was one of the art directors. We bought all sorts of fabrics and plastics and hand-made paper, we took some natural reeds and thistles and painted them in order to mix them with the artificial ones. We had this emergency session where we had to start over on the look of the film at a time when we were already starting the film. That was a challenge but we got there.

MOVIE RETRIEVER: There are plenty of memorable visual moments in Coraline but the one that struck me the most is one that is actually more of a throwaway moment than anything else - the part where Coraline enters the theater and turns around to discover dogs occupying every seat of the vast auditorium. It seems like an extraordinarily complicated shot, even if there was some cheating involved, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how that moment was staged.

SELICK: The dogs in the downstairs theater are all real, just as all the jumping mice in the circus are real. Those were two areas where I got a lot of pressure to go CG on them. My argument was that we could do that but then it would become ordinary because people would expect you to go to CG with multiple characters. I persevered and got people to help me figure out how to control the cost but I knew that nothing would match the impact of actually building a big set and populating it with lots of Scottie dogs with buttons for eyes. The close-up ones are more detailed and there are a handful that are really active and which do a lot of things. Then there is a mid-tier of dogs that can do less but which still have a range of emotion. Finally, there are background dogs and we had little cranks under the set to get them to bob up and down to show some motion.

MOVIE RETRIEVER: The Nightmare Before Christmas has such a loyal following. Are you at all surprised by that following and how it seems to be growing stronger every year?

SELICK: I am grateful to be a part of something that has a life beyond its original release. I would say that Coraline is like Nightmare in many respects in terms of artistic support because the movie on the screen is the one that we wanted to make and it wasn’t lost to politics. You can look at it many times because it s very rich - you could do a pass through it just watching the background characters.

I don’t have an ultimate answer for why Nightmare in particular has had its staying power. There is no doubt that Tim Burton’s original idea, inspired by How the Grinch Stole Christmas, is wonderful - a collision of holidays and a well-intentioned but semi-insane Jack Skellington who thinks he is doing to world a great favor. Danny Elfman’s songs are great.

Even though that film is very different from Coraline, I remember going through very similar things with that one. Disney was afraid of that movie and I still don’t know why. Obviously, they aren’t now but back then, they wouldn’t put the Disney name on it - it was a Touchstone film - and they didn’t spend a lot promoting it and were surprised that it did as well as it did. It took many years before it became a Disney film and now it is “the beloved classic” and it still makes me smile that they didn’t get it right away.

MOVIE RETRIEVER: Now that The Nightmare Before Christmas has been given the deluxe DVD treatment, is there any chance that the same thing will one day happen for James and the Giant Peach?

SELICK: They are actually doing a Blu-ray release and I was contacted several months ago by Sarah Durant, who is a post-production supervisor over there and who worked on James and the Giant Peach. They aren’t going to pull out all the stops in the same way, but it is in the works.

MOVIE RETRIEVER: Do you have any idea what is next for you?

SELICK: My head storyboard artist on Coraline, a young guy by the name of Chris Butler, has an original screenplay that he has written called “Paranorman” that I am supporting him in trying to get it set up for him to co-direct, though I won’t be directing it. It is a funny and sweet story about a kid who is different because he helps dead people. It is really good and really funny and I have gotten some other folks to support it and it is in early development. There is also an early Philip Pullman book called “Count Karlstein” that I did some development work on even before Coraline with a friend of mine, Terry Castle (who is William Castle’s daughter) , and we came up with the idea for a film of that which I am interested in going back to. I am also looking to collaborating with Neil again and we have talked about a couple of projects. The problem is that everything that he has done is already set up someplace because he has become so successful, but I would say there is a very good chance we will collaborate again.

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