Monday, August 31, 2009

Fozzie: Right-Handed Muppet

Muppets tend to be lefties. Look here, here, and here.

Not all Muppets are lefties, mind you. Fozzie is often referred to as Kermit's right hand, and, it turns out, for good reason. Observe:

First of all, you may be wondering why Muppets tend to be lefties. The reason is this: most of the smaller Muppets (meaning most of the Muppets) are operated with the Muppeteer's writing hand (usually the right hand, as you might guess) inside the head. This leaves the left hand to strum whatever stringed instrument the Muppet might need to strum. In the case of larger, live-hand (as they are known) Muppets such as Fozzie, it is more natural to strum with the hand with which the performer would usually strum, were that performer actually playing an instrument.

Oz was usually operating Fozzie's head with his right hand. He manipulated Muppet heads with his right hand most of the time when he was the lead operator, meaning that his left hand was free to perform both hands in those cases where he was operating a hand-and-rod Muppet, such as Miss Piggy. His left hand was free to perform only the Muppet's left hand, however, in those cases where he was operating a live-hand muppet.

(In cases where Oz was not the lead performer--such as Rowlf, whose main performer was Henson--Oz was the right hand. In even rarer cases--such as Swedish Chef, whose head was operated by Henson--Oz was both hands.)

I say "most of the time" because there were multiples of a number of the more commonly featured Muppets (see: Bike-Peddling Kermit). It might not always be the case that Fozzie would strum or write with his right hand, as another version of him (one that wasn't built for sitting down, as the one in the embedded video seems to have been) might have required different hand placement.

My guess is that Oz was squatting on a platform some feet below the visible stage floor, with his right hand in Fozzie's head, his head in Fozzie's belly, and his left hand on the guitar neck. Another performer (I don't know that there was a standard assistant for Fozzie) was probably crouched down to Oz's right, right arm rising up from behind the guitar, hand draped over the strings--at least for the close up.

It's unclear to me who would have been performing Fozzie when both he and Piggy share the screen--or if the Fozzie in that shot is the same as the one used for the closeup. We don't see Fozzie's feet in the closeup, so it's likely that it is an entirely different Fozzie.

Whatever the case, a lot went into selling the illusion. It is a testament to the Muppet performers' ability to suspend the audience's disbelief that a scene such as the above can continue to be as affecting as it is thirty years on, and it is a testament to Oz's mastery of the craft that he could provide Dave Goelz's Gonzo with such gentle backing harmonies--one as a pig, one as a bear, and neither in his natural voice--without it seeming ridiculous.

Dept. of Filk: The Literary Mack the Knife

This morning while running some errands I was listing to our local Public Radio station and it played a suite of Kurt Weil tunes from his Threepenny Opera. That inspired me to go back in my files and dig up a li’l piece of filk I wrote several years ago. Ladies and Gentlemen, let me present…

The Literary Mack the Knife

Oh the shark has
Pretty teeth, Dear;
And he shows those
Pearly whites;
You won’t find him
Read a book, Dear,
But you might see
Mack the Knife.

When the shark bites
With his teeth, Dear,
Scarlet billows
‘Gin to spread.
Mack is very
You might say that
He’s well-read

Once upon a
Midnight dreary,
Weak and weary
Pondered I;
Is that tapping
Just a raven,
Or is Mackie
Stopping by?

It was brillig
Slythy toves did
Gyre and gimbal
In the wabe;
Vorpal Mack went
Snicker-snack, Dear;
Jabberwock lay
There outgabe.

Mistress Em’ly
Belle of Amherst
Once sat writing
Over tea;
“Since I could not
Stop for Death, Dear,
Mack he kindly
Stopped for me.”

By the shores of
Gitche Gumee
Used to go;
Now Nokomis
Sits there weeping;
Mackie say it
Isn’t so!

Captain Ahab,
That fanatic,
Sought to kill a
Monster whale;
But who really
Sank the Pequod?
Mack says “Call me

Once an Old Man
Caught a “Beeg Feesh”
As he struggled
‘Gainst the Sea;
When the Sharks bit
With their teeth, Dear,
Mack said “Leave a
Bite for me!”

Rev’rend Dimmsdale,
Sinning Hester,
Ol’ Judge Pyncheon,
Sweet Goodman Brown;
Mister Hawthorne
Set them up, Dear,
It was Mack who
Knocked ‘em down.

Our great authors
Wrote us stories
Full of sorrow
Pain and strife;
Don’t go napping
While in Lit class,
Or you might miss
Mack the Knife!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

MODERN WARFARE 2’s Post-modern Story

Even before the likes of BioShock 2 and Splinter Cell: Conviction were pushed back to early ’10, Activision’s Modern Warfare 2 was poised to dominate this holiday season like few other games have before or will hence. With an extremely robust online multiplayer component (Call of Duty 4 is still, two years after its release, one of the top-ranking Xbox Live games) and an engaging single-player campaign filled with over-the-top – but not superfluous – action set pieces, it’s easy to see why there is so much anticipation for the sequel.

But there’s another reason, one much more fundamental to the evolving requirements and sensibilities of game design:
its story. As videogames continue to mature, their stories likewise grow more sophisticated; and while most titles still hew to the more insipid, tried-and-true formulae of the damsel-in-distress or the best-friend-who-(surprise!)-is-revealed-to-be-the-antagonist, multi-layered, thematically resonant narrative experiences are slowly, precariously being erected across the interactive landscape. COD4’s edifice is one of the tallest and, certainly, one of the grandest – no small feat, considering the narrative heavyweights it had to contend against: BioShock, Assassin’s Creed, Halo 3, and, of course, Portal.

The building blocks that Infinity Ward, the title’s developer, employed are not, interestingly (and, perhaps, tellingly) enough, the standard components that, say, an author would utilize in composing a novel; the game’s premise is standard enough – ultra-national terrorists dominate their home countries and, united, conspire to bring down the global American juggernaut – and its characters are crack military commandos, as ubiquitous to videogames as the crate and the tutorial. (This is not, of course, to say that its plot is bad or otherwise subpar; particularly for a special forces-centric first-person shooter, the developers managed substance and panache enough.) Much like Modern Warfare’s level design, it’s the presentation that makes its narrative stand out.

Cutscenes, the keystone of the vast majority of games’ storytelling structure, are also used here, but in a rather unique – and far more emotionally powerful – fashion: rather than stick with the traditional cutscene that is taken right out of the language of film, pulling the camera from its perspective in the protagonist’s head and making it a detached, objective observer, Infinity Ward kept everything first-person. Seeing a former premier, as such, disposed, detained, and ultimately executed loses its passive, disconnected quality; by viewing the events from his perspective, the player becomes the former national leader. It’s no longer a guard kicking a character in the mouth – it’s now a boot slamming down in our face, or a gun being pointed right against our temple. When the trigger is pulled, it is we who die. There is a potency here that no other medium can afford.

If such cutscenes can immerse the player so deeply and so effectively in a one-off character’s demise, the magnitude of such an impact is intensely amplified when one of the game’s two protagonists is killed in a subsequent scene. The resultant player involvement cannot be overstated: by killing off the character – and the American character, no less – that he has played as for several hours, and by doing so in such a direct, immediate, and visceral way, the task of taking out the evil terrorists and stopping them from killing any more innocents is no longer a purely abstract exercise; now it’s a vendetta, a personal crusade, ensuring that the player will stop at nothing to extract his revenge. Simple story or not, its emotional draw is terrific, and the developers utilize it for the maximum leverage.

These so-called interactive cutscenes, as such, propel both the emotion and the narrative drive forward, but they only account for an infinitesimally small fraction of the game’s actual story. The nuts and bolts of the plot’s mechanics are found in the levels themselves, in radio chatter or other forms of in-game dialogue; much like the first-person scenes and the short pre-level briefings, Infinity Ward decided not to shatter the first-person barrier by having a third-person camera and, thus, lose the momentum of intimacy. And consistent with the current trend in story-driven games, small, staged “vignettes” play out both in front of and around the player; as Captain Price, for example, is talking with Nikolai, his Russian informant, players can choose which angle to frame the tableau in – or to ignore it completely by running around like a chicken with its head chopped off.

Multiplicity is actually Call of Duty 4’s thematic motif, and it resounds in other, non-narrative aspects, as well. Sprinkled lightly throughout the game’s 18 missions are a few that present a completely different tack on level structure or the gameplay itself; the title’s first act contains a level that has players (once again jumping to a one-off character) pilot an AC-130 gunship as their SAS squad attempts to fight its way through to an extraction point in hostile territory. The subsequent act features a two-mission flashback that is told from yet another character’s perspective and consists of, alternately, the title’s sole stealth and its most intense, all-out action sequences. Much more than providing welcome breaks from the run-and-gun gameplay, these alternate sections help round out the breadth and depth of the military, showing all of the means at its disposal to fulfill its function(s) in a modern society. They also highlight videogames’ ultimate storytelling imperative: in a medium where story and player action intertwine, different perspectives on the gameplay create different narrative experiences – they are one and the same.

And this is the angle that Infinity Ward will more than likely push the hardest in its soon-to-be-released follow-up. While there may be a quantitative expansion in terms of a thicker script, containing more interactive cutscenes or lines of in-game dialogue, it is undoubtedly the qualitative increases that the developer will be most lured to: instead of featuring four first-person cutscenes that let players experience moments of great calamity or import, it may still be only two – but these two will be of an emotional quality several orders of magnitude more than watching a nuclear bomb go off in a Middle Eastern city and experiencing the last fretful minutes of a poor Marine’s life in the post-apocalyptic aftermath, as hard as that may be to imagine. This would be a lateral extension rather than a straight, linear one, a development which makes sense given both COD4’s relationship to Infinity’s two previous Call of Duty entries and the fact that Modern Warfare 2 is, technically, the first out and out sequel in the eight-game-strong franchise.

Increasing personal, as opposed to player, identification is a major breakthrough in the videogame industry, and it heralds a shift in game development, generally. If early gaming featured stories only as afterthoughts – inserted in the instruction manual exclusively, as happened in many an NES title – due to technical limitations, and if the modern period, starting with the 32-/64-bit generation, started to expand and then shift games’ narrative components down to the very foundation of gameplay (as witnessed in the Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid series, among many others), then the duo of Modern Warfares are among the first wave of post-modern titles: games that not only feature robust – even solid – narratives, but also ones that make players feel as well as think, that touch their hearts as well as their trigger fingers.

This will be the post-modern warfare of development studios in the years – and generations – to come.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Comic Book Inker of Note: Vince Colletta

If you look online you will see a variety of different opinions regarding former Marvel and DC inker Vincent Colletta. Some of the views come from fans and some from people who dislike his work or the man behind the work. The fans usually refer to the amazing volume of work by Colletta, as he worked many books each month, and did so with speed. The non-fans usually point to the same thing, that his work is sparse compared to other inkers, and suppose that it was due to the speed in which he worked. Fans say he was a rescue worker at the publishers, saving books from being late. Non-fans suggest that they’d prefer late and better work. Vincent Colletta’s claim to fame beyond speed is his work with Jack Kirby and some romance comics from earlier eras. Being that you are reading this, you likely wonder what I think about his work. It is a normal thought. Jack Kirby was the first artist I could identify by sight and know that his work was good. When I became more sophisticated in my views I grew to dislike the inks done to his pencils by Vincent Colletta, while I never felt the same towards any of his other inkers. I did not assume then, because I didn’t know, that it was speed, I simply didn’t like it.

But I appreciate that the person of Vincent Colletta worked hard, however the end result, because amongst other things, I realize art is about taste. I am not a fan of the work, and while I’ve heard a large amount of stories about Colletta by many of the artists in comics who I know, I do not suppose them all to be true. There are many other things I could say, but few have to do with his work, or even much the man himself. Most are arguments about the legacy of his work, and stories about the man. And of course there are debates online about things almost nobody witnessed first hand. So like him or not, Vincent Colletta was an inker who should be remembered for many good things, and perhaps some less than good things. Beyond that is not my point.

Two different considerations of Vincent Colletta’s work

Reasons to dislike Vince Colletta and his work

Reasons to like Vince Colletta and his work

Two different views:

Len Wein, Writer at DC and Marvel, on what he enjoyed most about working on Luke Cage: "Getting to work with the wonderful George Tuska, before Vinnie Colletta got his hands on the pencils and ruined them."

Jim Shooter EIC Of Marvel Comics : “He (Frank Miller) ended up getting a small job from Western Publishing, I think. Thus emboldened, he went to DC, and after getting savaged by Joe Orlando, got in to see art director Vinnie Colletta, who recognized talent and arranged for him to get a one-page war-comic job."

Search his work on the comic book data base

Monday, August 3, 2009

Sandman: The Dream Hunters

A year ago starting in September, I ordered the Vertigo Sandman mini-series The Dream Hunters as they appeared in Previews. When the first issue came I put it away somewhere to be safe. When the second issue came I couldn't find where I had put the first issue. After the 4th issue arrived I still couldn't find that first issue. On Free Comic Book Day I went to my local store to see about buying the first issue again, but they didn't have it. They did have the hardback book with illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano. I bought that.

This weekend when I was trying to find something else in our bedroom, I came across the first issue of The Dream Hunters. It had slid behind some other things. So, I read the four issue mini-series. P. Craig Russell's adaptation of the story was beautiful. The whole thing is just magnificent. It was great to read new Sandman. Sometime in the future I'll read the prose version with the illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano, but I was happy to read the mini-series this weekend. A hardback collection of the four issue series is currently available. You can see some sample pages of the series here in this review of the first issue.

Meanwhile, I have P. Craig Russell's adaptation of Coraline just tempting me on the shelf.