Design Tool Survey 2016

For the second year running, Khoi Vinh of subtraction.com is asking for designers/developers to fill out a survey detailing what tools they use in their day-to-day workflow. I’m probably not the true, intended participant, as it would be hard to argue that I am actively developing anything at the moment (dabbling here aside), but I’ve followed the process and outcome of the 2015 survey with interest and wanted to get a more hands-on feel for it this time around.

If you are at all interested, I’d definitely recommend it and you can do so here. Personally, I was a little disappointed by the lack of scope. The results of last year’s input were both insightful and very well presented, but now I’ve actually seen how those results were garnered I feel they’re certainly a little biased.

My main issue was the lack of personal detail requested. To be clear, the survey absolutely does not require email addresses, personal names, locations (outside of country) etc. and, correctly, refrains from these clear breaches of privacy. However, I would have though that determining the OS or main software environment people use would be fairly crucial. Similarly, asking what software you use right now is great, but I’d personally love to see what people want to use as well.

I’m a prime example of the warped outcome you can get without these details (if you ignore the fact that I’m barely an example, that is). My answers will likely group me in the box of “outdated dinosaur”; someone who is using the same tools now that they were a decade ago. Though this is largely the case (iPad aside), the reality, however, is that this isn’t my choice. I choose to use Windows as my core OS; I would do even if I was still actively freelancing as my main income source. But that means I can’t choose to move away from Adobe – at all. Would I preferentially wireframe in Sketch? Absolutely! But that isn’t an option because Sketch, like the vast majority of tools being surveyed, isn’t available to the vast majority of the world.

The gap between innovation and accessibility in the design world is becoming truly enormous, especially now even the iPad is undergoing large scale price hikes. Unfortunately, I don’t feel it will be possible for Subtraction’s survey to adequately reflect that issue, which I feel is a missed opportunity. Personally, I’d love to see how much of an impact this gulf is having in the West – it scares me to think how negatively impactful it may be elsewhere in the world!

Month in Media: June 2016

The superheroes remain strong this month. Apparently they’re rapidly becoming my equivalent of soap operas: quick, easy watching to binge on when I just want to switch off.  And speaking of binging… the month has ended with a week-long Harry Potter marathon. Why? Because the one benefit to adulthood is defining what that term entails!

Films

Crazy, Stupid, Love

I really enjoyed Crazy Stupid Love. The plot relies heavily on coincidence, which appears to be a staple of modern rom-coms, but the warmth of the acting and the cleverness of the script help tie it all together neatly. It rarely had me crying with laughter but I was smiling throughout, so definitely more of a feel-good flick than a side splitting romance. Still, the script is far more nuanced than it had any right to be, lending an actual feeling of observational humour and slice-of-life morality to affairs.

Honestly, it’s just a lot of fun seeing this cast combination getting to riff off one another. Steve Carell remains one of the most intriguing and varied comedians in Hollywood for me. I would be happy to never see any of his Jim Carey-esque moments again (40 Year Old Virgin, Ethan Almighty and even, for his part, Anchorman all spring to mind) but when he’s playing a realistic character he is amazingly charming and disarmingly funny. I loved him in the likes of Little Miss Sunshine and I love him again in Crazy Stupid Love. Then you have Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, both actors I just love watching, especially when they’re having this much fun. Combined, they provide a perfect ensemble cast and a very enjoyable film.

tl;dr: Crazy, stupid, fun. A feel good film that stands slightly taller than it perhaps should, thanks in large part to a fantastic cast.

Superman: Doomsday

Ultimately, Doomsday did win me over, but it was a close call. The animation is off at times, particularly for Lex Luthor, and the story managed to be both a retread and require far too much fan knowledge to be accessible. There’s nothing here that truly stands out, not the characters, the voices, music, animation or even the plot. Still, the heart of the film was in the right place and it remained entertaining throughout.

For a storyline named after one of the greatest enemies of the Man of Steel, the titular Doomsday was amazingly lacklustre, a villain whose only purpose was to incapacitate Superman and allow the actual plot to unfold. In reality, this was a closer retread to the Red Son storyline thematically, highlighting how it is not Clark Kent’s powers that make him deserve the capitalised Super, but rather his grounded sense of morality. I haven’t actually read the Death of Superman saga, so perhaps this film was true to the source, but the end product certainly felt a little rushed. Characters frequently had to use dialogue to advance the story, rather than presenting a logical chain of events, and certain subplots were entirely pointless (Jimmy Olsen as a paparazzi? Just why…). Plus, though the ending “reveal” to Lois did lend a certain amount of the warm fuzzies to events, I can’t help but feel that the plot would have functioned a little better had Doomsday taken place in a world where it was Lois Kent, not Lois Lane.

tl;dr: A decent retread of Superman with just enough heart and thought to be entertaining, though at times inconsistent and never novel.

Monuments Men

Lets just start by saying that I enjoyed this film and it’s certainly a lot of fun, with some great comedic performances and a generally stellar cast. Direction, sound and scripting were all sufficient, though none really stood out, and the core message was both worthwhile and refreshing, especially for the war-film genre.

It is a shame, then, that having watched the film and had my interest piqued, it turns out that the plot is heavily fictionalised. Some deviations are understandable, such as the use of the Nero Decree as a key plot point and reducing the scope of the mission to a smaller, more focused group of individuals (underdogs are always easier to root for). Others, however, seem a little odd. Why set the American government as a partial villain, with the Roosevelt administration consistently questioning if the program was even worthwhile throughout the film? The reality is that the government backed a much larger and better funded equivalent than is portrayed and it doesn’t really add anything to the plot. Similarly, why include the death of Jean Claude (over a horse, of all things)? There is apparently no basis for this in fact and it doesn’t serve much purpose in the film, either, given that the earlier death of Jeffries has already provided the “unifying” team moment and central tragedy.

Still, I am glad that someone has managed to make a big, Hollywood war film that focuses on this particular message. War is a terrible thing and the loss of life is appalling, but the destruction of a cultures’ history is arguably as heinous a crime (if not more so), yet we rarely think about it or account for it. The destruction of Palmyra has hopefully highlighted these issues to a wider audience, but cultural loss remains a depressingly common aim of war. Personally, I would argue that the direct targeting of cultural heritage should be a war crime and heavily vilified, yet the reality is closer to the opposite. I doubt the Monuments Men will manage to alter these long standing tactics, but if it introduces even a few doubts across the Western world it could be very worthwhile, in the long run.

Justice League: The New Frontier

If DC needed any inspiration about large ensemble superhero movies containing several new characters, high stakes and meaningful plots, then frankly they should just watch The New Frontier. With a modernised storyline, a little more focus on the more nuanced subplots, a clearer villain and a couple of prequel films to set up key characters and you have an Avengers rival. Damn this was good.

I’ve been on somewhat of a superhero animation binge recently, but The New Frontier has set an entirely new standard for the genre. The animation was flawless and beautiful throughout, borrowing just enough from the very stylised source material to feel somehow period whilst also thoroughly modern. The recasting of several heroes and associates in new (more plausible) job roles, with a slightly tweaked back stories, made the entire plot feel refreshing and new. Acting was top notch (and clearly attracted some big names) and the overall direction was superb. I never felt like the pacing was off or that exposition was being forced down my throat to make time for more action; plus, the Centre was an effective villain, revealing very little until the grand finale and even then maintaining a solid air of mystery and threat.

Sure, it would have been nice to get a little more explanation regarding the Centre, but honestly, with all the hero-based subplots, Mars missions, governmental regulation and just plain fun going on, the villain’s time was sufficient. It provided a very literal core (or centre…) around which the various threads could wind, slowly coming closer and closer together until they all culminated naturally. Except for Aquaman. Why was there an Aquaman? Where did he come from? More importantly, why wasn’t he actually helping! Oh well, never mind, all the other heroes were on point, with solid, character driven dialogue and a general feeling of actual heroism… which isn’t that common these days. Top marks all round!

tl;dr: Beautiful, clever and refreshing introduction to some of DC’s biggest names. Also, surprise Aquaman!

Guardians of the Galaxy [rewatch]

I love this film. At around my fifth viewing, I’m amazed how well the plot, action and characterisation stand up as well as how much it still makes me laugh. Guardians of the Galaxy is a master class of the superhero genre, with perfect comedic timing, stunning effects, a clear moral message and some very clever, comic-panel vignettes. Casting is superb, acting on point throughout and that soundtrack? Stunning! Guardians will remain one of my favourite films and comfort watches for a very long time.

tl;dr: Perfection. A brilliant soundtrack, hilarious cast and wonderful direction combine to make a superhero tour de force!

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone [rewatch]

I wouldn’t say I’ve remained as big of a fan of Harry Potter as many of my friends, so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this film. The opening sequence with Dumbledore “turning out the lights” remains an incredible well paced sequence that is literally thrilling to watch; a feeling that is matched by the entrance of Hagrid moments later.

In terms of setting up the world, the core plot threads and the characters, The Philosopher’s Stone is surprisingly well put together. My recollection was that the child actors were awful and the story woefully lacking in depth, but I now feel that was an unfair appraisal. Watson, Grint and Radcliffe are certainly not perfect in their roles, but it rarely bothered me or snapped me out of the story. Plus, the surrounding cast is fantastic, both in acting skills and just plain audacity. It was great fun spotting “new” actors who I had never realised were in the film when I was a kid, such as John Cleese’s Nearly-Headless Nick!

tl;dr: A solid entrance to the franchise which has held up surprisingly well whilst maintaining a sense of mysticism.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets [rewatch]

Far more than The Philosopher’s Stone (but much less than The Goblet of Fire), The Chamber of Secrets definitely felt like a greatest hits of the core sequences from the book. Several key scenes were presented without any real explanation and the foreshadowing that held the first film together was almost entirely absent. Bit characters, such as Gilderoy Lockhart, feel overly like parodies of themselves but do maintain a sense of purpose as comic relief.

On the flipside, the world and (particularly) creature design go from strength-to-strength. The basilisk is wonderfully sinister, yet snake-like enough that the Parseltongue subplot stays meaningful and the various cameos, such as the Mandrakes, remain both grounded yet magical, helping the world feel much more consistent than it rightfully should. Fawkes has always irked me a little, but this time around felt a lot more logical – even if I feel that a phoenix should be more beautiful (and less deus ex machinima) than this portrayal!

tl;dr: Some stilted moments, but a worthy enough successor that greatly improves the world building and nicely increases the stakes.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban [rewatch]

If asked, for years I would quote The Prisoner of Azkaban as my personal favourite film. I’ve always loved the darkness of the book, which for me always held very close ties with Halloween (werewolves, haunted houses, the introduction of wizarding candy etc.) aka my favourite day of the year! Viewing it again after so long definitely highlights that, from a filmography point of view, my long held beliefs hold true. There are some truly stunning sequences throughout the film and it holds up exceedingly well. I’m not as big of a fan as some people when it comes to the famous one-take exposition sequences, finding them a little overly rigid and unnatural, but the camera transitions through mirrors/glass remain mesmerising. The unique soundscape of this film also sets it apart, particularly the frequently utilised “Toil and Trouble” musical snippets that are blended into the more generic themes used throughout the franchise.

Time is obviously a key element to the plotline and the frequent use of clocks and ticking are also worthy of mention, but the cleverest tie-back to this theme is the Womping Willow. The tree plays a much larger role in The Prisoner of Azkaban than in any other film in the franchise, thanks to the hidden tunnels beneath its roots, so utilising frequent wide shots focusing in the willow to also depict the changing seasons is incredibly effective and very clever.

From a storyline perspective, however, film three was a bit of a let down. Key plot points are entirely ignored, such as the authors of the Marauders Map, despite amble time being available to the script writers. These aren’t just the standard annoyances of book-lovers irritated by their favourite scenes being left out, but truly key details that help explain character interaction. Without understanding how close Sirius, Remus and James Potter actually were the events of the storyline lack the same emotional punch. Similarly, Sirius, though played wonderfully by Gary Oldman, switches from raving lunatic to eloquent hero in the blink of an eye without any real explanation. His menacing appearance at the start of the film is never explained, his attack on Ron is lightly brushed aside without any apology and he really presents very little meaningful evidence to suggest he isn’t at least associated with the Death Eaters before everyone suddenly trusts him again. Plus, what happened to Snape! Did he just get blasted out the back of the Shivering Shack? How did he catch them up? Where did he go after Lupin’s transformation?

Then there is Lupin himself, whose werewolf form has aged somewhat. I frequently find films from this time period (and even more recently), suffer from the CGI looking very dated, whereas practical effects tend to be more resilient. From a plot point of view, there’s also very build up to his transformation, with only the slightest of hints here and there, resulting in a total lack of threat. Certainly Hermione’s outburst that she had been “protecting” him feels very sudden and unwarranted as we had no idea he needed protecting! All of this is a shame, because Lupin and his associated condition are some of the more interesting aspects of this story from a wider, real world perspective as an analysis into how we treat people with incurable disease.

Still, The Prisoner of Azkaban is a kids film and perhaps these loftier analyses are right to have been left out. Overall it remained a very well crafted entry to the series with some exceptional filmography and clever character development.

tl;dr: Still the best directed film of the series, with some truly stunning cinematography and thematic linkages, but the plot feels a little less well put together than I had remembered.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire [rewatch]

AKA the one where Edward Cullen meets Harry Potter. Quick aside, but how interesting would a cross over between those two universes actually be? Vampires are hinted at in the Potterverse, but never explicitly outlined (to my knowledge), but would magic be a threat to them or as easily brushed off as bullets (daylight spells aside)?

Generally, The Goblet of Fire was exactly how I remembered it: action packed, but an almost nonsensical plot due to the amount of story development that had to be cut. Other, equally long books in the series manage a much finer balance between simplifying the plotline and still presenting the core scenes. The Goblet of Fire, in comparison, feels like a film where they simply took the book and kept cutting stuff until it fit their time limit, then filmed it, regardless of how well connected the resultant story sections actually were.

To be clear, The Goblet of Fire isn’t an awful film. It holds true to the source material, the character design and acting are as brilliant as ever (read: the kids are better than last time, the adults are amazing) and you won’t regret the overall time investment. In pretty much every other way though, from cinematics to scripting, The Goblet of Fire is arguably the worst in the franchise. Sorry, Cedric!

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix [rewatch]

I started my review of The Prisoner of Azkaban by stating that it has long been my answer to the question “Which is your favourite Harry Potter film”. Rewatching The Order of the Phoenix, however, stirred up some long forgotten memories and feelings, as a result of which I will have to revise my answer. This is my favourite film (and book) in the franchise. How on earth had I forgotten that?!

Thematically and cinematically, The Order of the Phoenix is not as tight nor as clever as Azkaban, but the emotional impact it hits me with is far greater. Dolores Umbridge is just a remarkably clever antagonist, walking a tight line between fantastical witch and authoritarian bureaucrat, the latter making her actually relatable to the viewers own lives. It is this relatibility that I feel makes The Order of the Phoenix so much more than the sum of its parts.

Objectively, the plot is very much a bridge, moving the viewer away from a Hogwarts that is beset by annual monstrous threats but ultimately very disconnected from the wider Wizarding world in which it is set, towards a Hogwarts that is very clearly influenced (and influencing) an entire civilisation. This transition is very much a requirement for the over-arching plot to develop, for the impact of Voldemort’s return to be felt and for the (now teenage) main characters to begin their first steps into adulthood. In the same way that everyone’s world expands rapidly during their teenage years, as you begin to grasp the immensity and subtleties of the society you live within, so Rowling forces the world of Hogwarts to expand. The effect is very subtle, but when combined with an almost non-magical threat that could so easily exist in our own world (blood quills aside), the result is a story that feels deeply personal.

The stakes, of course, have also been raised and the repercussions are felt very deeply. The division within the wizarding world over whether He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has actually returned and, therefore, who to trust: the government or one of the most respected individuals in their society, feel real, both inside and outside of the school itself. Core characters begin making irreversible decisions, with the Weasley twin’s effectively choosing expulsion or the (arguably darker) impact of school kids having to train themselves for war, effectively choosing a side in doing so.

Ultimately, others may not feel as strongly about The Order of the Phoenix as I do, but it clearly speaks to something buried deep within me. The underlying themes of racism, particularly with the introduction of “half breed” characters such as Grorp and the increasing feud of the centaurs, are very cleverly woven into the plot. They feel neither forced nor centre stage but, unlike The Goblet of Fire, the film makers have managed to make them fit. Sure, a lot has still been cut and even more has been simplified, but the result is arguably the most internally consistent film in the franchise.

tl;dr: Turns out, this is my favourite. A dark yet relatable plot, with a strangely realistic vision of evil in Umbridge, make for some very interesting social commentary and a much deeper, more personal experience. Harry Potter grows up!

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince [rewatch]

I find the sixth entry into the Harry Potter franchise almost entirely forgetful. Rewatching the films has reminded me how much I still remember about the books and many of the cinematic scenes have stuck with me over the years. Not so with The Half Blood Prince. I remember almost nothing of the film (so much I’m genuinely unsure if it is a rewatch or not), don’t recall the book at all and actually just had to Google the title whilst writing this review!

I think it may have something to do with the plot feeling very much open ended. A large part of the storyline concerns itself with setting up future plot threads or resolving lingering inconsistencies, particularly with inter-character relationships, which are focused on a lot. I can fully understand if the emphasis on teenage romance is why The Half Blood Prince feels so lacklustre, but I think the film almost amplifies the effect. The titular mystery doesn’t so much as take a backseat in the film as it is almost entirely ignored. The text book that introduces the character has been reduced to a simple plot device allowing Harry and Slughorn to coherently form a relationship, though simultaneously is undercut by Dumbledore’s belief that being the “boy who lived” is reason along for Slughorn to desire Harry’s entry to the collection of students he prizes so much.

As a result, the end revelation regarding the identity of the Half-Blood Prince, the subsequent betrayal of Dumbledore and the conclusion to the whole Snape question (seemingly) feels somewhat lacking. The book is arguably the one entry in the series which focuses on a character other than Potter and Voldemort: Severus Snape himself. The relative lack of the occlumency lessons and, particularly, the insights into Snape that they reveal means that the character remains far more mysterious and open to interpretation in the film. Instead, the emotional impact has been shifted onto a “will they, won’t they” circus of teenage angst surrounding Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione. Ultimately, I feel they cut the wrong plot line.

Still, the tone of the movie is well placed, with some nice colour manipulation throughout that give the film a real sense of foreboding. This isn’t the work of a master producer, but it’s still nice to see and lends itself particularly well to Draco’s subplot. Indeed, arguably the best crafted sequences in the film are the frequent panning shots or subtle framing used to constantly remind the viewer about Draco. Without spending too much time with the character centre stage, the crew keep us in permanent suspense as to what his plans are whilst making it clear that he is being manipulated beyond his will, isolated from his friends and family. Subtle but poignant, it’s a shame the same level of care wasn’t taken with the similar issues playing out between Snape and Dumbledore themselves.

tl;dr: Unfortunately focuses on budding love interests rather than the real stories at the heart of the plot and the parallels of Snape, Dumbledore, Draco and Harry. Very much a setup movie for the big finalé.

TV

Constantine: Season 1

Definitely calling #TooSoon on this one! Of course, I had the luxury of knowing the rug was going to be swept out from beneath me come season end, seeing as it was cancelled several years ago now, but still… too soon! Sigh.

So yes, as you can probably tell, I am a fan of Constantine. The pilot was a little rocky, though technically amazing, but once the show hit its stride it achieved a great deal. The plot line rapidly pushed past the possibility of being just another monster-of-the-week setup, largely thanks to the angelic driving force of Mannie. The characters were all well portrayed and interesting, both keeping you guessing whilst constantly revealing little bits that made the pacing feel pretty decent. Matt Ryan was so accurately cast that I truly don’t think I’ll be happy with anyone else ever playing the titular character again. Plus, a seriously honourable mention needs to go to Charles Halford who played the eminently likeable yet mysterious Chas; Deadpool take note, this is how you script/play the likeable buddy to the wisecracking anti-hero.

The monsters were also great. Again, Constantine was definitely not afraid to try out some of the weirder denizens of the spirit world. Sure, we got possession, soul-eaters and similarly usual paranormal scares, but also Cobylnau and the Brujeria!? Ballsy, Constantine, ballsy indeed. Plus they were all done pretty well. TV effects are constantly advancing, but I still expect the likes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D‘s Kree warriors outside of finalés, yet Constantine‘s critters were consistently top notch and frequently actually unsettling.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: Season 3

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D continues to be a seriously solid piece of must-watch television for us. Season 3 definitely felt a little less impactful to the wider MCU, but with the Inhumans movie #cancellednotcancelled and the total lack of overlap with Civil War I feel that is less the fault of the TV-verse than those involved with the big screen. Hopefully some more tie-ins can be conjured in the future, even if it’s just with the Netflix shows!

Still, season 3 had a bucket load of new plotlines whilst nicely tying together the open threads from season 2 and setting up some interesting new avenues for future seasons to explore. Ward is finally in the ground for good, which feels right; he may have become one of the best TV villains in a long time, but at some point they had to let him go. Hydra, too, finally seems to have been dealt with, hopefully allowing us to move along with the Inhumans plots a little more. Lincoln’s fate was a shame, as he had become a useful foil to the occasional insanity of military thinking, but it’s also refreshing to see some real, permanent implications for the cast (Bobby and Hunter, I’m looking at you as well).

Overall though, I remain impressed by Agents ability to maintain a breakneck pace whilst juggling a large cast and keeping everything pretty grounded. There were definitely a few instances towards the end of this season that felt a little rushed, but as a transition away from Hydra and towards more Inhumans I felt the storyline worked very nicely. I’m intrigued to see what will happen now with a much reduced cast, seemingly heavily demoted, going forward into Season 4.