Monthly Archives: July 2009

Exploding marching band chic and the rise of the Capital-N Nerd

Also: This guy is the father of my daughter's friend. That makes her giggle.

I love that we live in an age where all things that used to be nerdy have been subverted and reprogrammed into something cool and hip — or at least ironic and hip, which is even better.

So it has been with comics. (Look at the size of the San Diego Comic Con; it’s where Hollywood goes with its hat in hand to find out what it should be doing next.) So it has been with sci-fi and fantasy. (Lord of the Rings brings home the Oscar! Harry Potter brings home everything else!) And now, so it has become with marching bands.

Yeah, marching bands. And I’m not just talking about stories of scrappy underdogs determined to make it all the way to the top of a college drumline. (I’m referring here, of course,  to the 2002 movie Drumline.) No, last night my kids and I took in a free concert of local “circus punk marching band” Mucca Pazza. Ironic and hip. Even better.

Mucca Pazza is the kind of mad experiment that, I imagine, begins with a couple of good friends on a fire escape deck, a cooler of Coors, a mild buzz, and someone saying, “What if…”

What if you made a jazz-funk-fusion band with marching band instrumentation?

What if you augmented that sound with violins and accordions and electric guitars and mandolins?

What if you grasped that marching band motif with both hands and milked it like an engorged Guernsey udder?

What if you channeled the spirit of a real marching band — High school! Athletic boosterism! Friendships bound through common hardship and esprit de corps! — and used it to fuel some cracked-out performance art of the highest exuberance?

After you asked enough of those questions you’d arrive at this answer:

Mucca Pazza at the Hideout Block Party, Chicago, Sept. 2008; photo by undergroundbee.com

Mucca Pazza certainly lives up to its billing as “circus punk,”  though I might quibble on emphasis, calling it instead a woozy fusion of Sousa, ska, klezmer, punk and funk, arranged by Danny Elfman in a Hungarian bordello and conducted by the ghost of Frank Zappa in a Marrakech bazaar. And as you can see, Mucca Pazza doesn’t so much play its music as sling it like hot hash. Their performance goes past high-octane all the way to pure diesel, from the mix-and-matched horn players prancing a deranged New Orleans funeral parade, to the crew of cheerleaders pumping their pompons, high-kicking their sneakers, and weaving high-energy mischief across the stage and through the crowd like a platoon of four-color Kokopellis. Seriously, Red Bull, consider this a prime sponsorship opportunity.

(Mucca Pazza pix by undergroundbee.com)

(Mucca Pazza pix by undergroundbee.com)

Mucca Pazza represents my favorite realm of expression, both love letter to and parody of something iconic and nostalgic. “We loved the old times,” Mucca Pazza seems to say, “but they were ridiculous too, eh? Well, what the hell. Watch what I can do!”

I consider this the logical conclusion to, the inevitable destination of, marching band music. All marching bands are comprised of a certain special kind of individual: lovers of music and mischief, oddballs, darkly comic, esoteric but earthy, fans of spectacle, traditionally untraditional, not suited for the football field (but game enough to play a key role on one every autumn Friday) — what the folk duo Small Potatoes calls “eclectomaniacs.” I can say this lovingly as a former band geek myself. (First trumpet, Greenhills High School, ’84-’87; Third trumpet, Northwestern University Marching Band, ’88-’91 and, yes, former NUMB Spirit Leader; Go Cats!) Nutjobs like us pour our hearts into our passions, and who cares what anyone thinks. For band geeks, one of those passions effectively disappears on the day we graduate from college, so it stands to reason that someone out there found a way to return to the joy of making rowdy, football-field-sized music on big, blatting horns. Marching bands as a music have been static for decades; marching bands as a movement just took a Great Leap Forward.

Good for you, band geeks. Blow, horns, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow! For the rest of you, catch a Mucca Pazza show sometime if you’d like something a little different in your musical diet.

It’s a good time to let your Nerd Flag fly. As Retort-regular Desert Son pointed out in the comments section recently, when John Hodgman can call the Leader of the Free World a geek, we are truly living the “Revenge of the Nerds.”

John Hodgman addressing President Obama in teh name of nerds everywhere. Hilarious, must-click viewing. Especially if you know hwt that hand gesture means.

John Hodgman addressing President Obama in the name of nerds everywhere. Hilarious, must-click viewing. Especially if you know what that hand gesture means.

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How the Disaffected Star Wars Fan can enjoy the Clone Wars cartoon

The trailer for season two of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” hit the Internet today, sporting a new bounty hunter villain …

No word on whether this new character will actually be clutching a fistful of dollars.

…and a love interest for Obi Wan.

Obi and New Girl sittin' in a tree! J, E, D, I, I, N, G!

Regular Retort readers may already know I have no real love of the Prequel Trilogy, so when the first of these post-Revenge of the Sith animated projects began to trickle out (featuring not the original Star Wars setting with Han and Leia and asskicking, but the new ones, with Anakin and trade disputes and whining) I sniffed my haughtiest sniff.

But in 2003 Genndy Tartakovsky, maker of Dexter’s Laboratory and the delicious-like-sake Samurai Jack, hit Cartoon Network with this:

This ain't a showing of "Chorus Line."

The first Star Wars: The Clone Wars project bought my attention because it gave us Jedi like this …

He's about to get medieval on their asses.

… who could do this …

Black Droid Moan

… and this …

"I have had it with these motherf%$#@ bolts on this motherf%&*@ droid!"

That’s right. A Jedi removed the bolts from a droid using his mind. These were not your father’s Jedi. These were a bunch of magic ninjas who said, “You know what? We can do a lot of cool moves with this Force thing. Let’s really push it and see what this baby can do, eh?” The series almost redeemed the Prequel Trilogy in my eyes.

But could lightning strike twice? Last summer, a feature-length, non-Tartakovsky Clone Wars hit theaters bearing Tartakovsky’s influence, but with decidedly fuglier animation choices:

Yoda and Batboy: Separated at birth?

Yoda and Batboy: Separated at birth?

Not just moxie -- *space* moxie!Reviews were pretty tepid, and by the time the boys and I sat down to watch it on DVD, I had gone lukewarm on the whole thing. I have to admit that as I watched, I found it more endearing than I expected: It made a little more hay out of its characters than the live-action movies. For example, Anakin gets an apprentice, the spunky Ahsoka (left), requiring Ani to develop as a leader and giving him a chance to be more than the whiny hanger-on he appeared to be in the Prequel Trilogy. Also, the clone troopers are treated as more than cannon fodder, building a few new key characters under those generic masks. Commander Cody and Captain Rex turn a troop of faceless clones into a “Band of Brothers” episode. (Of course, clones are still cannon fodder. Plenty make messy exits. But now, I actually cared if some of them were going to get Private Ryan’ed into oblivion.)

The movie kicked off a half-hour series on Cartoon Network, and I found my admiration growing. Characters had things to do! Choices weren’t easy! Dialog was crisp! Or funny! Or both! My kids and I howled several times at the memorable lines now coming out of the lowly B1 droids, those Laurel & Hardy everybots of the Star Wars universe. We still repeat a line said by one exasperated droid seen scrubbing down a dirty holding cell:

“No doubt about it,” he mopes. “Worst job in the droid army.”

Even robots have a rat race! In the episode “Mystery of a Thousand Moons,” we even get to see what happens when B1s get abandoned by their evil bosses and reprogrammed by scrappy street kids with a sense of humor:

Grapes not included.

I was thoroughly enjoying this show, but couldn’t put my finger on something eating away at me. Something was wrong about it somewhere. Was I just not allowing myself to enjoy a Star Wars story again? Was my inner geek too bitter and pouty to let me have this moment? Then my friend Tim put a fine point on it:

“It would be great,” he said, “if it just weren’t about the most evil guy in the Star Wars universe who was about to go kill all the Jedi babies.”

Bingo. The problem here is that we’re still looking at the conflicted and conflicting Anakin Skywalker being turned into a hero on a regular, episodic basis. We’re cheering for him at every turn, even when he’s being disobedient and flirtatious with the Dark Side. But we all know, just a few months in the future from where these characters sit, Rex and Cody and their buddies are going to rat-a-tat-tat a bunch of Jedi, and Anakin is going to Do His Part for the Revolution by practicing infanticide on little kids with rat-tail haircuts and shaggy burlap swaddling cloths.

It doesn’t click. You can’t reconcile these two characters, not when Anakin is clearly meant to be sympathetic and heroic. It’s difficult to enjoy these stories, knowing in the back of your head that all of the derring-do is going to net a big, fat goose egg in the big, fat picture. All of these victories? Soon to be pointless. All of the relationships? Soon to be betrayed. All of the emotion? Soon to be wasted.

But it’s too good of a show (and for me, too necessary a catharsis) to ignore. How to enjoy it then? Do like I do. Pretend you’re not looking at Anakin Skywalker, but another Jedi completely, one named Bananakin Sky-Walter or something. This story could fit anywhere at any time in the Star Wars timeline. Whatever comes next is a big surprise — no telling how this conflict will play out! Whatever you pretend, shut down that part of your brain that tells you what you already know about the story. Shut. It. Down.

It’s asking a lot, I know. But storytelling is all a game of pretend, after all. My way, it’s not just a one-way street of pretending coming at you from your TV — now you get to send some back for a change.

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Wednesday Comics: It’s a good time to like funnybooks

It's like a Fanny May box of chocolates. I want to eat it all.The San Diego Comic Con kicks off today, and in honor of this all-powerful nerd convention, I want to write a love letter about something truly original coming out from DC Comics right now: Wednesday Comics.

Original things are rare in comics; as I understand the industry, the business model is quite fixed, with thin margins, rising production costs, increasingly costly creative, and time-sensitive inventory, the management of which is a volatile and byzantine riddle for retailers. So to see anything different or risky kicked out of the comics machine is cause to shout. And boy does, Wednesday Comics make me want to do the Isley Brothers thing. Shout! Woo!

Wednesday Comics (named for the day new comics hit shelves each week) is a purely original way to get your comics on. It’s a weekly newsprint tabloid, a whopping 28″ x 20″, featuring 15 full-page, full-color comics created by some of the biggest names in comics. Just unpeeling the thing to get a good look is a tactile wonder. See, see!

Observe the natural stance for enjoying Wednesday Comics: arms flung wide, reared back in reclining chair. (Photography by Younger Son)

Observe the natural stance for enjoying Wednesday Comics: arms flung wide, reared back in reclining chair. (Photography by Younger Son)

Here’s are some reasons to cheer about this:

1. It’s a visual banquet. The array of colors and textures that spill out at once is big like a Michael Bay summer flick, but, you know, smarter and quieter. Check that photo, that’s the same as having eight pages of comics in front of you at once. It’s beautiful!

2. It hearkens back to the original comics experience. Back in the 1930s, the well-read gentleman sat back at his Sunday breakfast table and had a chuckle with a full page of Little Orphan Annie’s antics. Little Nemo, The Phantom, Terry and the Pirates — these are the characters who are swinging out of the Wednesday Comics pages as much as Superman and Batman. This isn’t just a novel way to experience comics, it’s an homage to another era.

3. The storytelling style comes from another era, too. In a weekly, one-page format, the creators have a real task re-discovering how to tell stories that don’t involve 32-page monthlies and six-issue arcs. This is the comics equivalent of “small ball” — there’s not even enough room to swing for the fences.

At the moment, DC Comics is also pumping out its major “summer event” series called “Blackest Night.” This is a big, loud, multi-title, intergalactic slugfest involving Green Lantern, the superhero space cop. It’s a story that has been building for years (through a couple of other major summer-event series), and it’s got a complex, continuity-heavy storyline. (“Continuity” in comics means the collective buildup of decades of stories being recognized in every new storyline; if someone develops an allergic reaction to nuts in issue #255, he better have his EpiPen ready when he fights the Mad Cashew in #600. Continuity-heavy stories can be off-putting to people who haven’t been following quite so closely.) I’ve heard good things about “Blackest Night,” but what a world away that is from these short bursts of contained story tumbling into my hand every week.

4. Oh, that creative lineup. It’s an All-Star Game in there:

* Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso on Batman. The two guys responsible for the badass “100 Bullets” series go together like AK and 47.

Azzarello and Risso, "Wednesday Comics: Batman"

Click it and lick it. Yummy!

Click it and lick it. Yummy!

* Neil Gaiman and Mike Allred on Metamorpho. This offbeat B-list character gets an offbeat treatment from these A-list creators. This example from the first week starts out rather conventionally, but weeks two and three have moved to giant, single-paneled landscapes. An unusual move, but hey, it’s Gaiman. I’m in.

Pope, "Wednesday Comics" Strange Adventures"

1. Click; 2. Love.

* Paul Pope, writing and illustrating “Strange Adventures,” the 1950s serial tracking sci-fi swashbuckler Adam Strange. Pope has a unique squiggled hand, with a rock-star-cool sensibility, like Mick Jagger is dancing on his desk as he draws. When he draws a page full of gnarly space baboons invading Adam’s personal space, I sort of tear up with glee.

* Kyle Baker on Hawkman. I know: Hawkman, Who cares, right? Well, I do, now that Baker’s convinced me. His narrator is a bird summoned by Hawkman to go on a suicide mission to stop a planeload of terrorists. The terrorists turn out to be invading aliens. Hawkman hurts them. Yeah, Hawks is one bad dude in Baker’s hands.

Kyle Baker, "Wednesday Comics: Hawkman"

*Kurt Busiek on Green Lantern, with crisp, nostalgic art by Joe Quiñones.

* Father-son team Joe and Adam Kubert on Sgt. Rock, a good ol’ WWII comics stalwart about busting up Nazis.

* Oh! Oh! The fantastic art of Amanda Conner and her husband and writing partner Jimmy Palmiotti on the supercute Supergirl, guest-starring the campy super pets from the Silver Age of Comics.

There are more, more, more great stories crammed in there. I can’t believe DC is pulling this off in the face of all those challenges I mentioned. There’s even another financial hurdle between this project and economic viability: how will these supersized comics get reprinted in the obligatory paperback collection essential to publishers recouping their costs on expensive titles? If Wednesday Comics does get the “trade paperback” treatment, it’ll be shrunk like a banana in a Ronco dehydrator. If we, the comics loving public, can make this experiment worth their while (i.e., buy this!) we may be rewarded with more innovation like Wednesday Comics in the future.

Like next summer, for example. DC, I’m clearing my calendar for you.

Have a great convention, San Diego!

Awesome overload.

Even more pages of slickitude from "Wednesday Comics"

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The Baron of Monte Cristo (and other sandwiches): A reflection on self-belief

I believe in belief.

Whatever you want, you can have it through unbridled belief in self. “The only prophecy,” you may sometimes hear me say, “is self-fulfilling.”

I had a friend in college who dreamed of being a Sesame Street puppeteer. Had a pretty focused desire for it, in fact. Any decent guidance counselor might have told her at some point, “Gosh, that’s a rather narrow career aspiration. Have you considered other jobs where you can work with your hands? Loom operator, perhaps?” Of course,  she eventually landed the job at Sesame. Which just goes to show you: Sometimes you get the puppet, sometimes the puppet gets you.

The patron saint of self-belief is probably Mark Borchardt, the filmmaking force of nature who is the subject of the documentary, “American Movie.” This is how Roger Ebert described Borchardt, the movie superfan:

If you’ve ever wanted to make a movie, see “American Movie,” a documentary about someone who wants to make a movie more than you do. Mark Borchardt may want to make a movie more than anyone else in the world. … No poet in a Paris garret has ever been more determined to succeed.

Borchardt works two jobs, writes in his car, shoots on the fly, and has seemingly no idea how impossible his odds are. What does he get for his ignorance? A screening of his movie (and the documentary about him) at Sundance, just by believing in himself more than anyone else believes in him.

But that was so 1999. Ten years later, my new poster boy for self-determination, for dreaming  a dream and never giving up, is this guy:

The car's name is Purplesaurus Rex. P-Rex for short. Seriously.

That would be Baron Ambrosia, a Bronx local-TV personality profiled today in the New York Times. He’s a self-appointed restaurant critic, scraping together spare resources to shoot a weekly public access show best described as “restaurant review meets telenovela.” The story of “Bronx Flavor” is too much fun — simply, Ambrosia (real name: Justin Fornal) saw the need for a campy, hot-blooded gastronome who does genuine reviews of eateries while spinning some absurdist theater along the way. The episode “Friend or Pho” pits the baron against both Vietnamese food and his recurring German nemesis; in “Joe Bataan Stole My Girlfriend,” his lordship battles a legendary salsa dancer while seeking the perfect roast of pork shoulder, all in the name of love.

Watch any episode at the Bronx Flavor site. I was just ingesting the “Quantum of Chimi” episode that focuses on a renowned, neon-clad chimichurri truck that serves the Bronx, and now I’m damn famished—and surprisingly well informed about concocting the perfect chimi. Times reporter Melena Ryzik writes:

Flashy production numbers aside, at bottom “Bronx Flavor” is an effort to educate and entertain without pretension. And Baron Ambrosia, a self-described “quaffer of culinary consciousness,” is like Anthony Bourdain crossed with Ali G… “He doesn’t rest, he only feasts,” goes his theme song, performed by a guy named Opera Steve. “How will he soothe the savage beast? Bronx Flavor!”

Of course that’s how his theme song goes. That’s how mine was going to go, but he took it first.

I really envy Baron Ambrosia. He found the baron-shaped hole missing from the world and he’s filling it with gusto. According to the Times, he’s winning hearts and minds across NYC — or at least amusing them. And for some people, that’s ambrosia enough.

SPECIAL FRUGALITY BONUS

Another reason I like Baron Ambrosia is his attitude about putting on a Barnum-sized circus with a Bozo-sized budget. Writes the Times:

Figuring out how to shoot each episode, he said, is “like pulling a heist.” But, he continued: “You don’t let your budget write your script. Just because I have no budget, don’t be like, ‘Oh, I can’t climb the Brooklyn Bridge, I can’t drive a car off a cliff.’ You can do anything! You just have to write it down, say ‘I’m going to do it’ and then figure out how the hell it’s going to get done.”

Great advice! His “realistic idealism” mirrors that of other filmmakers like Joss Whedon and Robert Rodriguez (no slouches in the Big, Crazy Dream department). I’ve already enthused about Rodriguez’s behind-the-scenes film school extras on his DVDs. For Whedon’s part, he provides loads of inspiration on the “Firefly” DVD commentaries. He actually seems to enjoy the limitations of smaller budgets, insisting that they force you to be more creative. His commentaries on those discs are full of tricky reveals about how he cut corners and cheated your eyes without compromising much, if anything, in terms of story or effects. Insightful and worth the time to listen.

UPDATE: Check the comments section for the most embarrassing typo I’ve ever admitted to in public. Once my friends find out about this, they may never look me in the eye again.

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Coraline gets the boot (or rather, the shoe)

OK, this is too good, so I’m bringing it up from the comments section. Regular Retort-poster Brian left this great comment on my recent post about the Coraline web experience:

Great movie. And fun website!

Back when the movie came out, I was searching the website to try to find the give-away of the Nike Coraline shoes they made. Although the give-away is over (and I didn’t win) you can still see what those shoes look like.

Someone at Nike had fun with the Coraline wardrobe, stitching style when designing them. If you want to see them look here:

In the coraline.com website, make your way up to Coraline’s bedroom. On the bottom of the shelf is an unmarked orange shoe box.

Click on that and it opens up the contest page. Click on the left side of that window and you can see the cool shoes they designed.

To try to win them you had to enter a secret code. The secret code was listed at the end of the theatrical credits. If you stayed to the bitter end of the credits, eventually you saw this come up:

For those in the know:
JERK WAD

My son and I saw this in the theater, with no idea what it meant. At the time we saw the movie, we didn’t know there was a secret code or even a contest. But it stuck in my mind so much that a few days later, when I discovered the contest, the words JERK WAD came back to me, loud and clear.

Still didn’t win the shoes, but I wish I had!


Here’s what Brian wishes he had won. (Frankly, they don’t seem really you, Bri, but I figure you were thinking of your daughter’s fashion needs):

It's also the official shoe of Little Big Planet.

Apparently, Nike crafted another version as a promotion for high-performing stores, this one relying a little bit more heavily on critters than buttons:

Forget gellin' with Dr. Sholl's. Get cotton in your Candies!Now THAT’s more your style, Brian.

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Four-word review of “Star Wars”

Vader before the brewski; Guinness still has a head.

Vader downs a Guinness.

—from The Four-Word Film Review

Other pretty good gags from FWFR:

“Drew first blood.” (Scream)

“Inflation causes housing crisis.” (Up)

“The emperors hike back.” (March of the Penguins)

“High-sea dead people.” (Pirates of the Caribbean)

“Everything including kitchen sinks.” (Titanic)

(Thanks to the corresponding sporcle.com quiz for bringing FWFR to my attention.)

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Beware: ‘Coraline’ is sneaking up on you

Readers of this blog may already suspect I’m in the tank for Neil Gaiman and I’m not too proud to cop to that. He’s a by-golly good writer, OK? And even though I was less than wowed by his 2002 book, Coraline — a fairly standard Gaiman story, I thought — I am ringing the bell big time for the upcoming release of the 3D movie on DVD next Tuesday.

You really should pick up a copy of this, one of the best movies of 2009, kiddie or otherwise. (This 2-disc Collector’s Edition at Amazon includes a 3D viewing option— but be careful. Most sources indicate you should get four pairs of polarized 3D glasses with this edition, but Amazon’s own product review, as of this writing, has no confirmation of this.)

But the movie isn’t necessarily what I’m reviewing here. Since its debut in February, Henry Selick’s stop-motion picture has been roundly praised by better critics than me, and rightly so: The visuals are hypnotic, the voice acting sublime, and the 3D effects simply stunning (watch for the difference in depth between the “real” world and the “other” world — I’ve never seen 3D tech used to such useful storytelling effect). The puppet “acting” deserves its own Oscar, as the subtle facial expressions and body language of the dolls conveyed more emotion than I thought possible with toothpicks, tweezers and tiny armatures.

I took all three kids to see this in the theater, and they loved it — even the 4-year-old girl, who has bravery issues. They talked about the movie for weeks leading up to the showing, and for weeks after. Why were they so stoked? Partly because I fueled them with repeated viewing of the beguiling trailer, but also because I primed the pump of their anticipation with the official site: coraline.com. This isn’t the first big picture to get a spiffy Internet budget, but this may be the most effective use of funds for the job yet. The Flash-designed site makes a perfect pairing with the movie it promotes: it’s creepy, kooky, otherworldly (literally), and yet still playful.

Point your browsers to:

Watch the lunar eclipse ... behind the shadow of a button. Nice touch!

With the ethereal music of composer Bruno Coulais cooing in the background, visitors are dropped into Coraline’s world. The interface here is familiar: Movements of your mouse influence a left-and-right pan of the grounds of the Pink Palace, giving you room to explore the physical locations, such as Mr. Bobinsky’s flat …

The cannons fire cotton candy. Of course.

… where you can have circus mice spell your name, or watch a weird, unrelated stop-motion movie about a dancing mustache:

Apparently, no mouse is small enough to put the period after the J

That’s just one room’s discoveries, but the grounds are riddled with weird finds — and in every case, the Flash animation is flawless, intuitive and fun. When we happened upon the “Create a Flower” activity in the garden, we got so sucked in I had to pull my boys away from the computer a half hour later. I repeat: My boys were invested in designing flowers. This activity in particular had mesmirizing animations to enlived the creation process, and the controls were just a kick to play with — the very ideal of a digitial toy.

Perhaps my sons have a future in ikebana.

In a similar vein, the “Other Mother’s Workshp” played up the unsettling predeliction of the antagonist to sew buttons over Coraline’s eyes — and, thanks to a webcam link and photo upload function, your eyes as well. You don’t have to stick to a strict one-button-per-eye allotment …

I've been attacked by a sewing kit!

… though our family found an afternoon’s satisfaction sticking with tradition:

Oldest Boy has never seen "Home Alone," I swear.

Other rooms hide movie clips, simple games, and some really compelling “making of” documentaries. (And truly, even if “making of” documentaries aren’t your cup of tea, try these anyway. Coraline‘s production qualifies as a Wonder of the World. Where would you go to find a lady who knits really small sweaters?)

The site wasn’t just a compelling come-on to get us wound up for opening weekend. I also credit it with setting expectations for the tone of the entire movie, which was a little intense and scary at times. Youngest Daughter would probably have dragged me out in the first 20 minutes if she hadn’t been fully immersed in the Web-based experience. The online Coraline is where we started good conversations about what kind of story to expect, what parts of the story were “real,” who the villain was, and how she had been created one frame at a time by a corps of some really skilled — and probably really intense — people.

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