Friday Night’s All Right For Blending and Shading

Friday link post exploring the baffling world of non-photorealistic shaders

Above is a tutorial by Ocean Quigley on how to make a non-photorealistic shader for Blender that looks like an etching or engraving. I was lucky to work indirectly with Ocean on SimCity 4, and he remains one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met.

Here, he makes the baffling process of shader creation seem not simple, but at least attainable. I definitely can’t claim to understand every step of the process he outlines, but he does do a great job of walking through step by step and explaining why he’s doing each part.

A simpler but interesting effect is explained by Ian Pitkanen, with this video demonstrating how to add a grainy effect to lighting transitions. It’s a nice, subtle effect that makes 3D objects seem less sterile and more like they’ve been printed on paper.

I’m frequently trying to learn how shaders work (and then getting hopelessly confused and giving up). One of the most useful-seeming resources is The Book of Shaders by Patricio Gonzalez Vivo and Jen Lowe, which encourages you to interact with the examples instead of just passively reading. This is a perfect approach, because it’s a reminder that this isn’t magic, but neither does it require a deep understanding of math. It is presumably possible to understand the basics and then experiment until you get what you want.

The reason I’m interested in shaders at the moment is to see if I can use Blender to make art resources for a possible game for an upcoming black-and-white video game device. This article by Braden Eliason on getting that classic Mac dither effect in Blender seems like it’ll be invaluable for that!

Walt Disney World, Part 1: Leaving the Bubble

My recent trip to Walt Disney World changed my idea of what I want out of a vacation

This summer, my fiancé and I went on a ten-day trip to Walt Disney World for my 50th birthday. Because it was such an arbitrarily momentous occasion, I was selfish and splurged in all the ways I’ve never been able to before: two days in each park, a whole day devoted to just hanging out at the hotel, dinners at some of the fanciest restaurants we could get reservations for, and staying at my two favorite hotels for peak nostalgia value.

I’ve spent most of the last year convinced that with everything terrible happening, it was inevitable that something was going to go wrong and make the trip impossible. But somehow, everything came together: we were both able to get vaccinated, our neighbors graciously offered to take care of the cat, we managed to get time off work, my favorite hotels opened up (at least partially), and Disney ran a discount that made the hotels just ridiculously expensive instead of impossibly expensive.

It ended up being a terrific birthday, and about as nice as it can possibly be to spend ten days in central Florida in late June. As great as it was, though, I could feel my perspective subtly shifting while I was down there. This felt like the last time I’ll take a lengthy trip to Disney World. Not just because I’ll never be able to justify the cost again, but because it doesn’t feel like my type of thing anymore.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not actually committing blasphemy by saying I’ll never go again. I already want to see the new stuff that’s going to be opening for the anniversary and in 2022, and onward. I’d love to be able to stay at — I mean take a space cruise on the Star Wars not-a-hotel when it opens. But this felt like checking “dream Disney World vacation” off of a list, and I don’t feel the need to do it again.

It’s not that I’m getting tired of it, either. I got absurdly spoiled on previous jobs where I’d spend weeks at a time at the parks, and it never got old. (Almost. It turns out that two weeks living on theme park food is my limit). Instead, I think I’m just at the point where I want something different out of a vacation.

I can honestly say I’ve never had any hesitation or regrets about spending almost all my vacation time at Disney parks. Complaints that they’re just for kids, and it’s weird for childless adults to go there, are just absurd, and I never even give them a second thought. Same for complaints that it’s all a corporate money-making machine; I mean, welcome to the 21st century.

The only complaint that’s ever gotten any real traction with me is that it’s all manufactured, a fake substitute for “the real thing.” And that pretty much dissolved as soon as I went to Italy, and I realized that Epcot’s version felt more realistic than actual Venice and parts of Rome. I’m skeptical that the people so dismissive of Disney are actually going on exotic adventure treks, or living like a native in delightful out-of-the-way sections of foreign cities, but even if they are, that’s not me.

I’m not convinced that “travel and live like the locals do” is actually a thing, at least unless you’re lucky enough to have friends who are locals. And even then, I’m not convinced it’s all that great a goal. I live in one of the most beautiful tourist destinations in the United States, and the thought of people paying money to recreate my day-to-day experience is profoundly depressing. They’d have a lot more fun doing the predictable, touristy stuff accessible to everyone: going to Fisherman’s Wharf, taking photos of the Golden Gate from the Marin Headlands, riding a cable car, getting a Mission burrito, desperately searching for a public restroom.

I’ve been lucky to do a fair bit of traveling, and I’ve always ended up in the touristy areas anyway, if only because I’m helplessly monolingual. I don’t even like talking to strangers in English; it was stressful enough being in Ireland, and people constantly greeting me with “Are you okay?” as if I looked like something horrible had happened to me. The idea of actually roughing it — either in terms of residence or social interaction — doesn’t sound like a relaxing vacation in the slightest.

So I’ve realized that I’ve spent years thinking about Disney parks — especially Walt Disney World, with its emphasis on all the resorts and stuff to do “inside the bubble” — in the wrong way. I’ve thought of them as taking a real-world travel adventure and making it safer, more compact, and more generically family-friendly. But now, I realize that it’s actually taking a family-friendly vacation and trying to inject a little bit of real-world adventure into it. It really doesn’t matter at all that it’s not an authentic experience; all it needs to do is give you something to look at and do that’s more interesting than just sitting by a hotel pool.

And I can’t speak for anybody else, but now that I’m firmly in my middle age, the idea of sitting by a hotel pool is more attractive than it’s ever been. My travel goals for the future are seeking out the most comfortable hotel pools in the most exotic places.

Next up: my report card for the trip.

Zero Entropy Is Our Goal

I’d never call myself a hero, but of course I can’t stop any of you from calling me that….

There’s a special streaming on Netflix that has been getting a lot of praise and recommendations to watch it. I finally watched it over the weekend, and I didn’t like it at all.

I spent some time last night and today writing a post explaining exactly why I didn’t like it, and the more I thought about it, the more I hated it. Still, I detailed my criticisms in a way that I think was fair, somewhat insightful, and always tried to meet the material at its own level. And I took care to explain why my dislike of it was relevant outside of just a TV show.

Then I just deleted the whole thing and wrote this post instead. Because honestly, why waste so much time chewing on something I don’t like? If other people like it, then it did its job, no matter what I think.

While I’m waiting for my medal to arrive, I did want to include a briefer take on the more relevant issue: what to do when someone you love (or yourself) is struggling with anxiety and depression.

There’s a really toxic idea that’s been going around for several years, repeated and embellished with each repetition to the point that whatever original good intention has been lost. It says that if someone is having a depressive episode, we should treat them as if we would a cartoon sleepwalker: never interfere! It says that our role is just to listen, never to offer help, or compare their experiences to our own.

I think it’s bullshit, and I hate it. Of course there are ways to take it too far, to make it too much about yourself, to come across as too judgmental, or to inadvertently minimize or trivialize what they’re going through. But the alternative isn’t just to do nothing. Someone who wants you just to listen to their misery without comment doesn’t want a friend or a partner, they just want a witness. No matter what narcissistic simpletons on social media might suggest. Besides, we’ve got enough to deal with, having to remember the fifteen billion rules suggested by self-proclaimed “introverts” detailing how they expect to be treated.

We need more genuine connections to each other, not fewer.

Mine Train Through Nature’s Bafflingly Sexist Wonderland

Disneyland’s Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland closed in 1977 (according to Wikipedia), and by the first time I went to the park, its replacement Big Thunder Mountain Railroad had already become a 20-year-old classic. So I never saw the original ride, but knew just enough about it to be able to recognize references to it.

For instance, one of the best Mickey Mouse shorts, Nature’s Wonderland, is full of references to the entire history of the ride, from the Rainbow Caverns to Big Thunder Mountain, and even Disneyland itself. I’ve seen this one several times, and patted myself on the back for catching the references, but I never knew how much was being referenced.

Fortunately, someone on YouTube compiled a full ride-through of the Nature’s Wonderland attraction, combining a recording of the original voiceover with restored film and photos from various sources at the appropriate points. It’s fascinating to see the whole thing put together after years of seeing and hearing about specific scenes and saying, “Yeah, I get it.” Some things I never realized:

  • How long and meandering it was. Everything was a lot more leisurely back in the early days of Disneyland, before concerns about capacity ruled everything.
  • It puts the Calico Mine Train at Knott’s into better context, which has seemed to be this weird outlier among any other theme park ride I’ve seen.
  • I never appreciated just how much Big Thunder Mountain Railroad calls back to Nature’s Wonderland, from Rainbow Ridge and the rainbow caverns, to the dinosaur bones at the end.
  • I never appreciated how bafflingly, unnecessarily sexist the original voice-over was.

It’s almost comical how often the narration veers off into “ahhh, women, am I right, fellas?” for no reason. I’m guessing this was part of the good-natured comedy that was injected to keep the rides at Disneyland from being too dry, as they were in their original incarnations. Regardless, it’s kind of a stark reminder of how much the parks have evolved over the years.

It seems especially relevant now, since Disney has changed the opening of its fireworks shows from the traditional “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls…” to a more generalized and inclusive one. As usual, people are complaining about political correctness, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the parks have been updated to be more inclusive to guests for decades. And they haven’t lost their classic charm, either.

Complaints from self-proclaimed “traditionalists” depend on the erroneous idea that things have always been a certain way, and it’s modern special interests trying to ruin everything to fit their own special agendas. What they ignore or deny is that the “traditional” versions were a special interest imposing their own special agenda on everyone — it’s not as if everyone in 1960 was delighted to hear needless misogyny (no matter how seemingly gentle) on a theme park ride. It’s a safe bet that a lot of Disneyland visitors found it grating, but not enough to make a big deal out of it or anything.

Remember that the next time you see some chucklewit complaining about encroaching wokeness. Take a step back and realize how changes made for the purposes of inclusivity have been happening forever.

One Thing I Like About Werewolves Within

Werewolves Within is based on a social deduction game and wins on its casting and its ambition

The promotions for Werewolves Within keep comparing it to Knives Out, and let’s be honest, that’s an extremely generous comparison. It’s absolutely not a bad movie, and it’s got a lot of clever ideas. Plus it has an assertiveness that’s nice to see — it clearly knows what messages it wants to deliver — and is especially rare in any adaptation, video game or otherwise. But I spent most of it with the feeling that its reach exceeded its grasp, and it was ultimately carried by some great casting.

I really like Milana Vayntrub (I’m mostly a fan from @midnight), which isn’t all that surprising, since being intensely charming and like-able is kind of her whole thing. That like-ability is used perfectly in a movie like this.

I’m also a fan of Michaela Watkins, who’s appropriately over-the-top; and Harvey Guillén, who’s disappointingly over-the-top. I appreciate his not just repeating the understated Guillermo from What We Do In The Shadows (which is the only other thing I’ve seen him in), but he and Cheyenne Jackson play a shrieking, stereotypically bitchy and self-obsessed gay couple that’s not really offensive so much as completely uninspired. The rest of the cast seems like they’re doing everything they can with the material they’ve been given. Sometimes it works.

But the standout is Sam Richardson as Finn Wheeler. This is the first thing I’ve seen him in — and remembered, anyway; apparently he was in Drunk History and the 2016 Ghostbusters — and he’s great in it. He starts the movie as a guy who’s just too nice for his own good, which is a character flaw that goes off in a direction I didn’t expect. His character is the core of the movie not just because he’s the protagonist, but because his character development is key to what the movie’s trying to say.

Considering that this was a movie loosely based on a VR social deduction game loosely based on a party card game, the fact that it was trying to say anything at all was appreciated. From what little I know of the game, the movie isn’t a direct adaptation, because that would’ve been a mistake. Instead, it goes for the fun suspicion and paranoia that makes a social deduction game.

I’d been hoping that this might capture the feel of The Beast Must Die, which is in retrospect a social deduction movie and which I love beyond any rational measure. Werewolves Within didn’t manage that, and it didn’t even seem that that was what it was going for. It was more than anything going for comedy, and so much of what makes mystery stories, horror stories, or werewolf stories was only obliquely hinted at if mentioned at all. (For horror cowards like myself: it’s really not scary or gory, and I think all of the R rating was for language).

Instead, you just get to spend an hour and a half with some good actors and a frequently clever script. You could do a lot worse!

Jungle Cruise, or, The Wonderful World of Corny

The Jungle Cruise movie has already won me over before I’ve even seen it.

To be clear: I’m fully prepared for Jungle Cruise to be more the disappointment of The Haunted Mansion than the thoroughly pleasant surprise of Pirates of the Caribbean. Obviously, I hope it’s as much the goofy spectacle that the trailers promise; we are long overdue for another The Mummy. But I’m not going to be shocked or crushed if it turns out to be empty nonsense.

But as far as I’m concerned, they’ve already won just by virtue of the marketing campaign. The ongoing gag is Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson bickering with each other for attention, most brilliantly illustrated by the teaser posters, with the Rock peeking over Blunt’s shoulder, or her face mostly obscured by a torch.

Two new trailers continue the gag, and they’re a little bit more corny and obvious than the posters, but I mean, this is a movie based on the Jungle Cruise. Corny and obvious should be the go-to. This is still obviously a Disney take on The African Queen, but I was happy to see so many references to the ride in the Rock’s trailer.

I was even happier to see Paul Giamatti chewing up the scenery. One thing Giamatti and Johnson have in common is that they always understand exactly what they’re making. It’s definitely not always good, but when it’s bad, it’s never because they didn’t get the tone right.

This isn’t an easy tone to get right. The combination of corniness, self-awareness, and CGI-heavy spectacle can be completely insufferable — or worse, forgettable — if any of it’s out of balance. But no matter how the movie’s turned out, I’ve already enjoyed the hell out of the version that’s playing out in my imagination, based on the promotional material.

Five Things I Love About Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway

Thoughts about the relentlessly delightful ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida

We just got back from a week-and-some-change-long trip to Walt Disney World for a milestone birthday. I’ll probably have more to say about it later after I’ve done more reminiscin’, but there were two immediate standouts: the Skyliner, and Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway.

The ride replaced The Great Movie Ride in the Chinese Theater at the center of the park, and it’s notable for being the first ride with the Mickey Mouse characters. (There have been shows and movies, but never a ride).

I just loved it. I’d already spoiled myself by watching ride-throughs on YouTube, but still had a huge grin throughout, both times we got to ride it. It most reminded me of the first time I rode Pooh’s Hunny Hunt at Tokyo Disneyland, not just because they’re both trackless ride systems, but because they’re both start-to-finish delightful in a way that supersedes individual gags or overall spectacle.

There’s too much it does well for me to pick just one thing, so here’s five:

Continue reading “Five Things I Love About Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway”

Literacy 2021: Book 12: Zen in the Art of Writing

A collection of essays combining Bradbury’s philosophy of writing along with some victory laps for his best work

Book
Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

Synopsis
A collection of essays and poems from throughout Bradbury’s career, with a common theme of Bradbury’s philosophy about and process towards writing.

Pros
Offers more insight into the ideas that led to books like Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and the novel and screenplay of Something Wicked This Way Comes. Gives a better picture of Bradbury as a man, beyond his often bombastic prose, who seems to have been blessed with a lack of self-doubt without being arrogant. Describes flow state without using the phrase “flow state,” years before the concept became common enough for me to hear about it. Includes accounts of writing for different media, such as plays and screenplays. Repeats his assertion that the value of writing is entirely in the writer’s unique voice, an invaluable reminder for those of us filled with self-doubt or imposter syndrome, paralyzed into inaction for fear that we have nothing original to contribute. Has an interesting description of his working with Disney on the Spaceship Earth attraction, which I got to read from poolside, right before riding it.

Cons
Heavier on the memoir side than the guide-to-writing side. Not much in the way of practical advice, apart from the most practical advice there is: put in the time and effort, write a lot, and don’t overthink it. Contradicts some of his earlier assertions, as he muses on the idea of revising the novel Fahrenheit 451 with some of the revelations he had while making a stage adaptation of it. Unclear whether Bradbury felt that the actual craft of writing is innate, or just beyond the scope of these essays. Repeats some of the claims from his other essays, forewords, and afterwords — such as his assertion that he could remember being born — which are inevitable for an author as prolific and long-lived as Bradbury, but which make his work seem smaller and more finite.

Verdict
Good supplemental material for fans of Ray Bradbury, but as a guide to aspiring writers, the content can be summed up simply as “keep writing, and your unique voice will manifest itself.”

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Feel the Flow, Here We Go

One song from Epcot Center and another song that captures how I felt as a 13-14 year old in Epcot Center.

The Universe of Energy pavilion wasn’t my favorite (although the pre-show with a film projected on rotating panels was mind-blowing to teen Chuck and hasn’t been matched since). But the “Universe of Energy” theme song has almost everything I love about early Epcot: undeniably early 80s, with that kind of inspiring instrumentation that made you feel like F Yeah with Exxon and American ingenuity, we can do anything wait what’s that about an oil spill?

I say “almost everything” because another of my favorite aspects of early Epcot was how 60s and 70s animation was still lingering in unexpected places: a Roman chariot turning a corner in Spaceship Earth, several scenes in World of Motion, and the “horror story” section of Journey Into Imagination. It made the park feel almost like a showcase for the Disney educational cartoons.

And to this unabashed nerd, it was like they’d combined Disney World and PBS into a full-sized version of 3-2-1 Contact that I could walk through. I’m definitely not anti-IP, and I’d prefer a movie-based attraction to a corporate sponsorship any day, but I do think it’s a little sad that when it came to Epcot Center, the edutainment nerds lost. It was inevitable, in retrospect, that entertainment would win out for people spending a ton of money on a vacation. (Especially since it should’ve been obvious to everyone, even in the late 70s, that Disney would never be willing to make the kind of recurring investment required to keep the educational material current and interesting). But at least it’s comfortably settled into nostalgia, which is both fun for aging nerds and profitable for Disney, so win-win!

Semi-New Song Sunday: Michael Kiwanuka

Michael Kiwanuka’s 2019 album is so full of epic, swelling soul that I wish I had more frame of reference to describe it.

I’d stumbled on the video to Michael Kiwanuka’s “You Ain’t the Problem” last year, and while I like that song a lot, I wasn’t enthused enough to dig any deeper.

My mistake was assuming that this was music you could full appreciate from a couple of singles. While checking out the whole spatial audio business, I saw that the album KIWANUKA was given the Dolby Atmos treatment, and I listened again. This really demands that you sit back and give the whole album a listen, because it’s an experience. Songs flow into each other, call forward and back to each other, pick up bits of melody; it feels like an epic, swelling concept album, with its amazing string arrangements throughout.

It’s undeniably a kind of homage to early 1970s soul, but it doesn’t feel like just a throwback or a pastiche, but a contemporary album building on that music. It actually makes me wish I listened to more soul, so that I had a better frame of reference than just What’s Goin’ On? and the Grand Theft Auto soundtracks.

“Hero” is another powerful song from the album, with a powerful video, but to me it makes it feel a little bit “smaller” than it actually is. As if it were little more than a callback to earlier music, instead of part of a new album that should itself be influencing musicians 50 years from now.

One song where the video does help, in my opinion, is “Home Again” from his 2011 debut album of the same name. (Which is a good bit lighter than KIWANUKA, and also pretty fantastic). It’s kind of a visual indicator of what the music is doing: taking a fairly straightforward and repetitive base and layering these fantastic arrangements on top of it to make something epic. Don’t make the same mistake I did, and assume that everything great about Kiwanuka’s music can be contained in a few singles.