Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Quality is King. Or so I've heard, at least in the production business. But like most things, it's not always so simple. Case in point: 'XMen Origins: Wolverine'. By now everyone is fully aware of the dramatic (if not terrifying to some) news that a working copy of the latest flick somehow found its way into circulation. I won't go into the various implications or indeed broader threats to the animation industry, but certainly there is a lot at stake. The reason I mention it though is that the people who may be seeking to acquire the movie by whatever means don't seem to care that in large part it is not yet complete! Unfinished or missing FX, uncorrected colour, placeholder music and sound - likely whole shots that have as yet not been added or may be removed in final edit. So why do it? Who knows for sure. To me it seems a little bit like a child peeking at a their presents before its time to open them (our first experience with spoilers). I am pulling for you Wolverine, but I suspect in spite of such information, lots of people would be content to view it regardless. Which raises an interesting question...

How much do people really care about quality. There are the "Blu-ray'er" types who you meet at parties who are always happy to describe the quality difference from regular DVD's with almost religious zeal, and there are plenty of other tech-minded aficionados that demand better color range or resoluiton in the material they watch (and are in large part prepared to pay for it ...imagine). However, these remind me of the old stereo/hi-fi buffs of yesteryear who would refuse to listen to an inferior version of good music or was played back on sub-standard equipment. In other words, a minority (though Glod bless them). So why care? Why spend all that time and money adding so much polish to content for the mass market? It still matters, and I think I can explain why.

Cheap almost always means a short life-span and lesser experience. You know it's throw-away or second best (I never knew what "white-metal" meant until I bought a cheap discount tool). I'm not talking about a genuine deal you might score for a good sale item of course, and nor am I referring to otherwise expensive products being sold out of trunks of cars in a parking lot. Actually, to be fair, there is something that adds to the quality of the experience when you save up to afford the genuine article and can't wait to get home and crack it open (unless it was something like 'The Day the Earth Stood Still' remake). ANYWAY, point is, cheap things tend not to last and often look or work like crap. So you don't get much out of them.

Lack of quality is also linked heavily to the perception that you don't care. Like it or not, the person with the ironed, stain-free outfit, fresh breath, buttons all done up and shoes polished will inevitably pull off a better interview. I know, I know - shouldn't matter, but it does. I am no fool, and I have interviewed plenty of artists and managers in my time. I know talent when I see it, but something in each of us can't quite ignore that the person who seems to have their personal life in order may just care more than others - and vis a vis are more likely to take better care in their work as well. It doesn't have to be fair to be real.

This is why when I see really really good work, especially in the film and games business, I can appreciate the quiet message that is being spoken behind it by the creators; that they honestly care and hope you notice and enjoy what you see. They care so much in fact that they want you to believe for the rest of your life that you experienced something that was unforgettable - that had "quality". That message is actually being delivered from the writers and directors on down to the last artist tweaking final shots late into the night. Again, that they actually give a crap, and we could all use much more of that in today's crazy, disposable-minded world. The message rings out loud to me every time the movie 'Jaws' plays that's for sure, and it almost killed a young Spielberg to make sure we heard it. Which is the reason why I would watch it again in higher def, wider screen, or restored color - so I could squeeze every last bit of quality out of it whenever I experience it again. And if there is a personal message for any artists and directors out there, it's that you should strive to be just as detail and quality minded. Remember that this sort of work is more of a craft than an assembly line job or free flowing art piece. You need to learn to be m-e-t-i-c-u-l-o-u-s. Do that, and you should be all set.

For the same reason I think the current interest in the Wolverine WIP (work in progress) cut is just a temporary thing. The finished stuff is what will really last and therefore be worth seeing/experiencing. Quality sticks with us and impresses. Something in us registers it, just like when you meet someone that has their act "wired-tight" as they say (in Platoon at least). You don't immediately notice why they made such a good impression. Often it's in the details that are felt as much as seen, and it makes you remember the person - or the artwork in this case - and want to see more.

I had an early career lesson from a friend and colleague when I was starting out. I was coming in more junior and had completed what I thought was a careful, professional job - a tedious build of some complex model - but it wouldn't render right for some mysterious reason. I was confident the work was sound, but he took a moment to sit down and started checking it out more closely. Remember, this is an important senior person taking time out to review my work. I noticed him zooming in on some geometry where the artifacting was happening. I recall that I blathered out (cuz, you know, I knew sooo damn much) that I had already done that, but he ignored me and kept zooming in. Zooming..., zooming... It felt like we were heading down some insane level of a mine shaft. I could feel the heat rise. An uncomfortable drip ran down to the small of my back, and beyond. And then...there it was - a set of points at some crazy, microscopic level that had not welded. All I got from him was a passing sympathetic look (if I read it right) and a shrug before he walked away. I NEVER forgot that moment. Precision is a skill. So be as thorough, careful, and polished as you can. It's takes patience and effort to train yourself to operate at that level; to strive to be impeccable. The speed can come later. Hell, it's what I call "smart-speed" anyways because this mindset often helps avoid bigger problems later, as I have experienced time and again. There are enough people out there creating mediocre or unpolished content, and making decent money doing it, sadly, but it is usually forgettable. It's missing the magic. People like to see or own things they can't dream of being able to create themselves because they can feel it's value. Which brings me back to Wolverine...

I have a feeling the official release and follow-up products will likely do well in the end. This is new ground for everyone, another test for the emerging digital world, so it will be interesting to witness the results. It is possible that the average Joe will have no desire (or opportunity) to see the unfinished bootleg version. They'll go see it when officially released. I know the Blu-ray types will want to wait to see it on the big screen, and/or will purchase the official disc release after that. And then there may be a whack of people that have perhaps seen the unfinished version and can't help wanting to see what the final version looks like in comparison - especially on the big screen - so they can feel the great sound hit them, see the true depth of color, quality of simulation, or subtle sound effects that all help to create a more imersive, believable experience. No. I don't have a sense it will be a disaster in the end, and if not it will all be due to good ol' dependable quality.

Doug Masters, Apr, 2009

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