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Viva La Diva?

This year Eurovision kinda snuck up on me. With my health issues keeping me busy I barely took notice of the going-ons before the semi-finals this week. Unlike in other years the anticipation just wouldn’t build up as usual. That’s not bad, though, as diving in unprepared and being positively surprised can be just as exciting. That’s the primary takeaway from this year’s edition: It was pretty good.

Okay, you could argue that the growing commercialization results in ever more polished and smoothed-over musical fare every year, but there can be no denying that regardless of this the performers actually knew what they were doing – mostly. Nothing worse than someone with a thin voice making it to the final, if you get my meaning. There was an overall positive vibe and lots of cheering, but with Tel Aviv being the epicenter of the gay scene in the middle east, that was little surprise. As I once wrote, indeed the gayest city in the world with all the other LGBTQ people to boot. The show also playfully managed to integrate this in the show with some self-aware poking fun at it. It also managed to pay respect to Israels long and reasonably successful Eurovision history. Lots to love.

There were some not so great moments like Iceland unnecessarily pulling a political stunt and provoking the crowd. I also still can’t get behind the chubby girl. Netta just isn’t good and how she can be so popular eludes me. And of course there’s that thing with Germany not scoring a single point from the public vote. That was certainly unexpected, though not entirely unpredictable in hindsight. I guess the chemistry just wasn’t there in the performance even if the song itself wasn’t any worse than most of the other more average ones. Speaking of half-baked performances – yes, Madonna. After she seemed to have been a real terror during rehearsals, the result was pretty lackluster. It appears she really was just in it for the money…

Les Cloches ne sonnent plus

Yepp, my friends, that is exactly the first line of Les Cloches, that fantastic song from the second act of the amazing Notre Dame de Paris musical and it exactly describes what everybody seems to be feeling right now – a deep sense of sadness and grief over the loss of that world-famous church building.

Now I’m not religious and my interest in visiting places of worship is therefore certainly limited. In fact unless someone drags me along or explicitly invites me I try to avoid such situations, as I consider it an impolite intrusion on people of faith’s very personal relationship with whatever higher power they seek counsel. Similarly I’m not that guy to obsess over architectural details, relics or pieces of art in these buildings. I can appreciate such things as an achievement of their time, but I’m not one to obsess about it. It just doesn’t connect.

Where it gets personal, though, is indeed my unusual (for a German) love for certain types of French music, including the aforementioned Comédie Musicale, as well as my own connection to Paris through several trips. I never joined the lines to get inside, but inevitably when roaming around Paris you can’t possibly avoid at least passing by Notre Dame every once in a while even if you are just exploring other parts of the city. Even with such a superficial connection I was shocked to see it go up in flames, regardless, and at TV primetime, no less, and in the week of weeks for many devout Christians, the lead-up to Easter.

At this point of course one can only speculate and it may sound a bit insensitive, but to me it seemed inevitable that something like this fire incident might happen one day. I can barely remember the building not being partially cordoned off and having construction equipment around it, so to me it seemed logical that something was bound to give one of these days. I even seem to remember that when I first visited Paris in 1991-ish they were already scrambling because one of the exterior supporting arches had collapsed and the whole aft section of the nave was also under threat of collapsing.

Either way, it’s tragic in so many ways, it’s hard to not feel touched. One can only hope they can salvage as much as they can and rebuild the place in a timely manner, even if it never will be the same again – not just for the tourists.

The King is dead!

Sad news today: The undisputed king of the fashion world, Karl Lagerfeld has passed away at the age of (assumedly) 85 years. Yes, that’s what everyone assumes because of course being coy about his age was one of his little vanity quirks. However, be that as it may, he was still a giant and one of the most famous/ notorious people on this planet if you even have the slightest interest in his work.

I don’t consider myself much of a fashion aficionado though I try to dress reasonably tasteful and stylish within what my budget allows, so I’m pretty sure he would have found me boring and awful. Similarly, I don’t have much of an inkling about women’s clothing or for that matter Haute Couture as such. That doesn’t take away from my admiration for him as a universal artist, though. You can literally see that he was living his lifestyle to the fullest and almost everything he did oozes creativity, be that his drawings, his photos, his books.

What I also liked is that despite his superficial mannerisms and appearance he seemed to be a rather deep, grounded and funny person. I all too well remember documentaries about him where he told brilliant dirty jokes, got full on philosophical or reminisced about his childhood. All this of course still has to be seen in the context of a privileged life and upbringing. He was far from what most people would consider “normal” or mundane. Still, it might have been fun to spend an afternoon with him and talk about his life.

In any case, his legacy can’t be disputed and I’m already anxious what great stuff they will dig up when going through his stuff. He once said himself that he never keeps stuff around he’s not satisfied with and botched sketches immediately end up in the trash, but I would imagine that there are still tons of drawings, unreleased photos and other things to find that will allow the world to better understand who he actually was…

Kurios(ity) doesn’t just kill Cats

As you know from reading my blog, it has become sort of a tradition for one of the more recent Cirque du Soleil shows to appear in the holiday programming of Arte TV, our go-to Franco-German cultural channel, every year. This year we got Kurios – Cabinet de Curiosités which launched officially early this year. I only now had time to catch up and watched it online after it originally aired on Christmas.

As much as I’ve always been a fan of the Cirque and still am, I tend to see things a little more critical as I’m getting older. Inevitably not every show can be a hit and to everyone’s liking as new themes are explored and the performances built around them, but the wave of Steampunk-ish/ 1920s Retro shows in the last few years is not necessarily my kind of thing. The gothic/ Art Nouveau style, the freaky contraptions, the drab colors, the strange costumes and even men with mustaches aren’t really up my alley and make it difficult to get into the mood. It’s a strange trend and I much prefer the zany and wacky or baroque stylings of some other shows. The video recording having been color graded in a similar way with lots of brown-ish and green accents doesn’t help, either (it’s no doubt much more colorful in the real world).

Anyway, as far as this one goes it seems at least there’s some sophistication and prowess in the performances themselves. I’m not going to take the overexcited audience of this recording cheering even at “simple” stunts as a measure of the show’s quality, but some acts are indeed quite adrenaline-inducing. The first half is a bit too slow for my taste, but the second noticeably amps up the wow factor with some very speedy, exciting stuff and an almost poetic finger theater piece.

The music is unfortunately very forgettable. It really sounds like some “tried & true” standard chords and riffs from older shows have been thrown in the cobbler and remixed with some syllable-based swing style chanting thrown in here and there. Not a single theme truly sticks. You can literally have the show run all day and still not remember a single note in the evening.

Once again I’d totally watch the show for real, given how rare opportunities are to do so, but regardless, it still strikes me as a perhaps not the greatest work of the Cirque. All the fancy design work and technical finesse can’t disguise the absence of a consistent story line and heart, things that made e.g. Varekai or OVO so enjoyable. It indeed feels like what the name suggests – a cabinet of curiosities or even partially a freak show. Interesting to look at for a while, but leaving you with a slightly uneasy feeling even after you have left.

Nodally Shady Maxon

With my energy these days being focused elsewhere and the extreme summer heatwave across Europe drawing everyone’s attention on other priorities, anyway, this is kind of an “Oops, is it really that time of the year again already?” thing, but yes in the run-up to SIGGRAPH the annual updates to your favorite 3D programs are being announced.

Maxon are the first out of the gate with Cinema 4D R20. Last year people got all hyped up that this needs to be special just “because it’s an even anniversary” or something along those lines, and while this new release isn’t bad, what we got perhaps is not quite that. Call me a cynic if you must, but to me it still feels like they’re busy catching up to other tools, so many of the new tools feel like they should have been there ten years ago.

What stands out most notably is at long last a nodal material/ shader editor. I’m not giving away any secrets when I say that the traditional material editor long had begun to file like you scratched open an inflamed pimple on your butt, so this finally should solve some of those pesky problems like re-using textures in multiple slots. The irony here is of course that Cinema 4D forever has had XPresso forever and by ways of complicated workarounds with creative use of some nodes you could do some things already, which makes you want to scream “What took you so long, after all?”. It’s really that it always seemed obvious to everyone except Maxon themselves. Of course a nodal editor makes some simple tasks a little more convoluted and abstract, so depending on your experience level and daily requirements it can be a mixed bag. It’s the price you pay for flexibility and versatility.

One thing that almost makes me dance with joy are the new generalized Fields. Back in the day I always thought that MoGraph falloffs could be ten times more powerful if only they could be used on other things and now they finally made it happen. Again, there were of course all sorts of clever workarounds even then like settings your cloner objects to Thinking Particles group to pipe info back and forth, but to say it was often pain would be an understatement. Not only did it require sideways thinking and extra effort, but was then bogged down by TP‘s poor performance. Similar observations could be made for other techniques – it’s not that some things were entirely impossible, they were just not obvious to the average user, convoluted to set up and clunky in their use. Providing a unified infrastructure could improve this considerably.

However, and that’s still a stinker, let’s not forget that in particular those two new feature sets will still suffer from some features not being on the same level and thus impeding overall usefulness. Yes, I’m talking about that UV texture thing, dynamics and particle simulation. Maxon can brag about UV-based fields and texture operators all they want, but with Bodypaint not having been fully rebuilt there is still no easy and good way to do explicit UV work or live-paint those flow maps and whatever. similarly, without a revamped particle and simulation framework it’s probably fair to say that those dynamics in the demo videos still will require meticulous planning and out-of-the box thinking. Still a long way to go here.

The volumetric modeling tools and the CAD import strike me as a clear stab in modo‘s direction or for that matter similar volume tools in Houdini for instance. The demos look a bit too made up for my taste, though, and the workflow with the redundant object/ layer hierarchies could become pretty aggravating on more complicated setups. This seems like unnecessarily repeating the same mistakes from the past like on some other items. And of course again it would probably be a lot more fun to make those meshes splash with real dynamics.

While it’s a solid release, my overall impression still is, that somehow Maxon‘s priorities are backwards. Point in case: All those showy, motiongraphics-centric features make for some nice demo videos, but one can’t shake the feeling that either you are never really going to use them in your own work (for whatever reasons) or if you attempt to do so might get stuck due to a feature you may need not having been renovated yet, not being available at all or even its new incarnation lacking compared to programs from competitors. More than anything else this uneasy feeling is what probably would still have me using Modo for some of my work and Cinema for other tasks without ever being able to fully commit to either. It’s an imperfect world…

The One

While I’m still waiting for that billionaire prince who takes me to Las Vegas, New York and all around the world to see great shows, I of course have to make do with what I have in front of me here in Germany and aside from the Cirque du Soleil occasionally popping by and many smaller entertainment shows that’s not much. The one thing that stands out like a shiny tower in the middle of the desert is the Friedrichstadtpalast in Berlin, one of what we call “Erich (Honecker) ‘s good deeds” back from the days of the GDR. Built to the newest standards back then as the largest open stage in Europe, it somehow survived all the turbulences of the great turnover and after some dire years in the 1990s things turned around in the early 2000s, when they started creating their own resident shows.

I always wanted to go and see those shows, but as is typical, for one reason or another I always missed out, so this has been on my bucket list for forever. Conversely, my mom always wanted to go as well, but when she was still working as a teacher the timing never worked out and when she went into retirement, we had all this trouble with my dad, so it took us just that much longer to work things out. At long last we went this Saturday and while I never had much doubt that I would enjoy it in some way, The One turned out much better than I had anticipated. I was pleasantly surprised. Mind you, it’s still not Cirque du Soleil, but highly enjoyable.

Structured around the old trope of somebody’s dream serving as the framework of the show there is of course not much in the way of a linear narrative, but you still kinda get what it’s about. They didn’t need to hammer it home by explaining it all too much in a spoken voiceover during the intro, IMO. Once the show starts, time flies by quickly, which is alway’s a good thing. If you are not speaking German, though, that may be a bit different, since naturally some of the songs are not in English and you may not understand what they are about. For my taste the singers were a bit underused, considering that in many Cirque shows there’s often a permanent chorus, so there’s room to improve on that. I wasn’t too convinced by Roman Lob‘s performance, which sounded very much like “your average musical singer guy”, but Brigitte Oelke as the aging diva was great.

The musical performances are helped by a sizable live orchestra, something which is becoming rarer and rarer because many shows aren’t willing to afford the cost. This is also where the size of the stage pays off. It’s very deep (to the point where you could literally build a palace inside the Palast) and the musicians have plenty of room at the back of the stage, with only the wind instruments having been put in a separate room at the side of the stage (to better control their volume and overall sound, presumably).

The artistic performances were a bit of a mixed bag, being that the larger groups of course were represented by dancers with some additional training, which limits what they are able to do. The solo performances by “real” acrobats on the other hand were quite good and caused a lot of cheering, with the cyr wheel and trapeze acts enawing the crowd in particular. There was also quite some rigging and wire work with people and set pieces going up and down and appearing in unexpected locations, which goes to show the advantages of a resident show with stationary equipment perfectly finetuned to the needs of the performances.

The marketing makes quite a bit of Jean-Paul Gaultier‘s costume designs, but to be honest it’s not really that much that’s standing out. It’s more or less a “best of” collection, from Madonna‘s cone bra making an appearance to a lot of fetish- and BDSM-inspired shapes and materials. I would argue that a halfway talented fashion student could have copycatted it without the maestro himself being involved at all.

Overall, though, this is worth your time and your money. It’s only still running to 5th of July, but if you are in Berlin on a day with bad weather this could be a good way of killing some time. I’m already looking forward to the new show Vivid and definitely have plans to go see it one day. Let’s hope it doesn’t take as long as it did to even get started with this…

The fat Lady sang…

…and she won! Yupp, the chubby girl with her chicken imitation took home the prize and next year’s Eurovision Song Contest will once more be in Israel, pretty much exactly twenty years after Dana International. That could be fun, but it doesn’t change the fact that the song wasn’t particularly good and it seems to me that it was pandering a bit too obviously for the #MeToo movement with some cheap, crude lyrics. One has to be thankful for little things, though. At least this spared us from Norway‘s and Sweden‘s umpteenth attempts to manipulate viewers’ opinions with their shitty mainstream-optimized, smoothed-over radio music fare. Talk about nepotism! Geez, they should introduce rules to prevent that! It also saved us from many a poor singing like the one with that Lithuanian lady. Girl just can’t sing!

As far as personal favorites go, though, it would be hard to mention any. Naturally I’m pleased that our own German contest entry was well-liked and scored heavily, even if I find the song just slightly annoying as well. Others could be deserving of similar observations, be that Denmark with their well-sung, but poorly presented Viking-ish chants, Italy with their politically flavored song, France with something similar or even that weird opera singer from Estland. All of them are kinda enjoyable when you hear them, but you wouldn’t necessarily remember them five minutes later, much less do they compel you to dig deeper into the artists’ work. It seems we have come to a point where the ESC is almost too perfect for its own good and memorable songs and performances are barely to be found.

Even the surrounding show was less than memorable this time, with only Salvador Sobral‘s presentation sticking out. He clearly didn’t care much for the trappings of the Eurovision show and if he had his way, would probably have jammed out all evening on the stage. ;-) The four lady presenters were struggling with language a bit too much on occasion, which made the interludes painful to watch. Interviews can be really awkward when both sides don’t communicate in their native language and even simple attempts at humor tend to be misfires. What also rubbed me thew wrong way is that despite all optimizations on the voting procedures and a strict show schedule the event seems to be getting longer and longer. I’m really having more and more of a tough time to stay awake for so long and probably will feel the effects for the rest of the week and try to compensate my lack of sleep…

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