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Amazon did a lot of funky stuff this year and its paying off



Holy hell, it’s been a year for Amazon. Jeff Bezos’ former-online-bookstore dumped $13.7 billion to buy a bunch of grocery stores, that speaker you talk to in your living room that Amazon makes is really popular and a bunch of server farms Amazon runs generate more than $10 billion in revenue annually.

The confluence of all these things has led to an incredible rise in its stock on the year — one that might be even more impressive than Apple’s slow march toward hitting a $1 trillion market cap (assuming the iPhone X story plays out the way they hope). Amazon is nowhere near as big as Google or Apple, but at the same time, its core business is an online retail operation that operates with razor-thin margins. For the most part, Bezos has gotten the benefit of the doubt from Wall Street, and its strategy of gleefully investing in new operations appears to be playing out as hoped.

Let’s get to the chart:


And with all this, its founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is making a run at becoming the richest human in the Local Group. Amazon is investing in a lot of wild operations, like buying Whole Foods, and all of these big moves are starting to coalesce into something that actually makes a little bit of sense as the company looks to become the backbone of the way people run a lot of their daily lives through the internet. Whether that’s buying stuff online, buying groceries, watching movies, listening to music or even using services that are running on Amazon’s invisible infrastructure, the real Amazon is becoming an absolute force in the everyday life of nearly every internet consumer.

So, because Amazon did all the stuff this year, we’re just gonna run through each one bit by bit, starting off with probably its most important one.

Amazon’s server business is booming

Were it not for AWS, Amazon probably would not have posted a profit in the string of quarters that it did. We’ve noted this before, but here’s the money chart again:


While Amazon is increasingly facing a lot of competition from Microsoft’s Azure, as well as Google Cloud, it was one of the original infrastructure operations that gave birth to modern internet services, helping startups get off the ground with servers that they didn’t have to buy themselves. It was also one of Amazon’s most ambitious bets, and one early example of how Amazon was willing to bulldoze its way into new markets orthogonal to its core business model.

The bet paid off, with AWS now on track to generate more than $10 billion annually. More importantly, that $10 billion annually comes with a pretty healthy margin — though, over time, that margin may slip down. For the time being, though, it’s an impressive business compared to the razor-thin profits that Amazon might generate from its retail operations and a good data point as its media services like video or music start to play out.

And, as usual, recurring revenue is a story that Wall Street loves. Amazon is a company that people will often tell you not to bet against, and its stock is up more than 50 percent on the year thanks to an array of businesses that all appear to be showing growth and the company’s recent-ish ability to turn a profit. Amazon can thank AWS a lot for that.


Amazon’s play for the vocal internet

Amazon also said the Echo, its voice-enabled speaker, was the best-selling product on Amazon for the holiday season, with millions of devices sold. This is a pretty big deal for Amazon, as it may have stepped into one of the single-best new interfaces for the internet as a whole — as well as reducing the friction further for buying stuff on Amazon. And for a service that is essentially the hub of online commerce in the U.S., having an Amazon-sold item is also a pretty good look for the company.

Even if the devices are relatively cheap, locking consumers into the Amazon ecosystem, in the end, is likely much more valuable than selling a bunch of internet-connected speakers. Amazon Prime gives Amazon an opportunity to turn its shoppers from once-in-a-bit purchasers to a reliable stream of recurring incremental revenue. Amazon doesn’t do much in terms of disclosing how Prime performs, but at the same time, a reliable recurring revenue model is something that Wall Street loves — and something that’ll keep them happy and off Bezos’ back.

We’d love to show you a chart here, but the best we’re gonna get is some kind of vague large number from Amazon. So for now, be skeptical, but assume that it’s big and has a lot of potential ramifications for the future of the internet (as much of Amazon’s operations do) — especially as companies like Google and Apple nip at its heels.

Amazon buys a bunch of grocery stores

Amazon made one of the biggest and splashiest acquisitions of the year, second only to Broadcom’s move to acquire Qualcomm and consolidate the fabless semiconductor market into a single unit (which is an equally very large deal). It acquired Whole Foods, a trendy grocery store chain that has a strong brand, for $13.7 billion — and it went through! This was both wildly, in a very Amazon way, expected and unexpected (and was definitely not a good thing for Blue Apron, which was prepping to go public at the time).

Whole Foods gives Amazon a set of local waypoints for groceries, but also storefronts to get its products in front of consumers. It can apply its wealth of data to reorient the prices of products in such a way to get consumers in the door for their staples while getting them interested in other products. And, maybe, more importantly, it can stick its own products in those stores, like the Echo.

While this gives Amazon a big business right away, it also offers Amazon yet another opportunity to lock consumers into the Jeff Bezos Sphere of Influence. We don’t know the full ramifications here just yet, but it’s another example of how Amazon was ready to just crash its way into a new market that sort of makes sense in the Amazon grand scheme of things.

Amazon, in the end, is setting itself up for a future where it serves as the backbone of how consumers interface with products they use in their everyday life that are, in some way, connected to the internet. These moves may seem drastic and have a very long runway to play out, but if you ask a lot of people in tech which stock they would keep from the FAANG group (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google), you’re probably going to get Amazon as an answer. And then they’ll reference that Tweet wherever that says Amazon grew x thousand percent since it went public (because, in hindsight, I guess we totally should have seen this coming, and the future played out exactly as it was supposed to). So as we head into 2018, we’ll see if Amazon actually fulfills that destiny.

Also, Amazon should buy a coffee shop

Seriously, Jeff, buy a coffee startup. Maybe don’t spend as much as Nestlé did on Blue Bottle. Or do. Whichever. There can only be good things that come of this.

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MoviePass CEO proudly says the app tracks your location before and after movies

Charmaine Blake



Everyone knew the MoviePass deal is too good to be true — and as is so often the case these days, it turns out you’re not the customer, you’re the product. And in this case they’re not even attempting to camouflage that. Mitch Lowe, the company’s CEO, told an audience at a Hollywood event that “we know all about you.”

Lowe was giving the keynote at the Entertainment Finance Forum; his talk was entitled “Data is the New Oil: How will MoviePass Monetize It?” Media Play News first reported his remarks.

“We get an enormous amount of information,” Lowe continued. “We watch how you drive from home to the movies. We watch where you go afterwards.”

It’s no secret that MoviePass is planning on making hay out of the data collected through its service. But what I imagined, and what I think most people imagined, was that it would be interesting next-generation data about ticket sales, movie browsing, A/B testing on promotions in the app and so on.

I didn’t imagine that the app would be tracking your location before you even left your home, and then follow you while you drive back or head out for a drink afterwards. Did you?

It sure isn’t in the company’s privacy policy, which in relation to location tracking discloses only a “single request” when selecting a theater, which will “only be used as a means to develop, improve, and personalize the service.” Which part of development requires them to track you before and after you see the movie?

Naturally I contacted MoviePass for comment and will update if I hear back. But it’s pretty hard to misinterpret Lowe’s words.


The startup’s plan is to “build a night at the movies,” perhaps complete with setting up parking or ordering you a car, giving you a deal on dinner before or after, connecting you with like-minded moviegoers, etc. Of course they need data to do that, but one would hope that the collection would be a bit more nuanced than this.

People clearly value the service, because it essentially lets them use someone else’s credit card instead of their own at the movies (and one belonging to a bunch of venture capitalists at that). Who would say no? Some people sure might, if they knew their activities were being tracked at this granularity (and, it has to be said, with such a cavalier attitude) to be packaged up and sold. (Good luck with the GDPR, by the way.)

Hopefully MoviePass can explain exactly what data it collects and what it does with it, so everyone can make an informed choice.

Update: In a statement, a MoviePass representative says:

We are exploring utilizing location-based marketing as a way to help enhance the overall experience by creating more opportunities for our subscribers to enjoy all the various elements of a good movie night. We will not be selling the data that we gather. Rather, we will use it to better inform how to market potential customer benefits including discounts on transportation, coupons for nearby restaurants, and other similar opportunities.

I’ve also asked for information on what location data specifically is collected, for how long before and after a movie users are tracked, and where these policies are disclosed to users.

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Aesthetic excellence: how cinematography transformed TV

Charmaine Blake



Directors of photography from Atlanta, Transparent and other top shows discuss how they achieve the sensibility of cinema

Much of the conversation regarding the rise of prestige television has rightfully centered around the showrunners and writers rooms whove energized a medium that was once the province of three-camera sitcoms filmed on studio sets. But less often do we focus on the cinematographers behind the lens, many of whom never saw themselves working in television until, in the last decade or so, the schisms between the small and big screens dwindled. And not merely in the scope of the stories or the quality of scripts: never before has television looked so good, from inventive camerawork to glossy lighting.

Its hard to ascertain exactly when the paradigm shift began, but there have certainly been seminal moments that most boldly bridged the gap between the two: the six-minute tracking shot in True Detective following Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson on a drug bust comes to mind, as do early seasons of Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire, ambitious, world-building series that took a sledgehammer to the conventions of episodic television. That the Television Academy split its cinematography honors between one-hour and half-hour series last year also signaled that the Emmys governing body had taken note of the profusion of aesthetic excellence on TV.

Nowadays, changes to TVs visual orthodoxy is reflected everywhere, and more diversely, too: in the sprawling, noir-ish science fiction of Netflixs new series Altered Carbon; in the shabby surrealism of FXs Atlanta; in the bright, California sheen of HBOs Insecure; and in the hyper-naturalism of Amazon shows like Transparent and I Love Dick. In these shows, and several others, environment comes alive as much as the characters do and, unsurprisingly, the directors of photography behind them were inspired by the world of film, approaching the work less like fragmented installments of a serialized story than like marathon movies, constructed piecemeal.

None of the creatives involved in this project saw this as a TV show, says Martin Ahlgren, who shot half of Altered Carbons first season and several episodes of House of Cards. We all imagined it as a 10-hour movie, and thats the approach we took to creating not only story arcs but visual arcs.

Joel Kinnaman in a still from Netflixs Altered Carbon. Photograph: Netflix

For Altered Carbon, a Blade Runner-inspired series about a future in which consciousness is digitized and stored in microchips, Ahlgren says that the visual world was more fully realized than it might have been as a two-hour feature, where much of the show would have been constructed via green screens and digital effects. Moreover, for a series that bounced between six different directors in its 10-episode first season, more responsibility falls on showrunners and cinematographers to establish and sustain visual through-lines in the absence of consistent episode-to-episode direction.

Jim Frohna, the Emmy-nominated DP behind Transparent and I Love Dick, took a similar approach in his collaboration with showrunner and head writer Jill Soloway. The pair, inspired by the intimacy of Andrea Arnolds film Fish Tank, first teamed up on the 2013 feature Afternoon Delight; when they moved to Amazon to make Transparent and, later, I Love Dick, they saw no need to change their formula as they ventured into television.

Jill would always talk about Transparent as a five-hour movie and never had any expectation that wed change how we shot Afternoon Delight, says Frohna, whos teamed up with Arnold to shoot the second season of Big Little Lies. I love lighting very naturalistically and was always drawn to hand-held cameras. I purposely would light from outside the windows, just like how youd have light coming into an actual place, and that freed up space for the actors to use the whole room.

There was a time, 15 years ago, when there were so many movies in town you would see them shooting on the streets, at the studio, and then that dried up, says Transparent DP Jim Frohna. Photograph: Merie Wallace/Amazon

When speaking of their approach to television, cinematographers frequently invoke the influence of naturalism on their work. Christian Sprenger, who shoots Atlanta, attributes the shows raw, dreamlike quality to his fruitful relationship with creator Donald Glover and director Hiro Mirai, who were often expressly working against the conventions of the small screen and culling inspiration from indie films like Memphis, Belly and Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Ive never been involved in a project before where it almost feels like no risk is too big. Were shooting in Super 16, using these super-old garbage hand-lenses, putting tons of filtration, purposely trying to improperly calibrate the color balance, Sprenger says. When we were making season one, it was around the time that the first season of House of Cards and True Detective came out. It felt like there were these institutional pillars getting knocked over by these auteur film-makers, coming in and saying Were going to make a TV show however we want, and well make it not feel like television at all.

This was what Ava Berkofsky had in mind before she was hired to shoot the second season of Insecure, which she felt too closely resembled a standard television sitcom and hadnt yet taken full advantage of its environment. I was really drawn to Insecure, as a fan of the show, but I thought there were a lot of opportunities that werent being embraced, with it being an LA show, a female-driven show, a black show. I thought that the lighting overall looked too similar to television, and that people of color didnt need to be lit so aggressively.

Insecure DP Ava Berkofsky: Its no longer the same 50 people in charge of all the content that happens. Its a much bigger, more democratic pool. Photograph: HBO

I never had any desire to shoot television before, so I felt like I had nothing to lose in the interview, Berkofsky adds. I told them I would want to switch from zooms to prime lenses, change the lighting from stage-y to naturalistic, and treat it like a film. When she was brought on to shoot most of Insecures second season, Berkofsky and director Melina Matsoukas, who directed Beyoncs Formation music video, drew from the color palettes of films like Nightingale, Selma and Moonlight while referencing Flying Lotuss Until the Quiet Comes video to establish a sense of place.

Naturally, given that cinema is a common point of reference for todays premium television series, the distinctions between the two mediums have begun to shrink. But subject matter, too, comes to bear on the look of a series, and more or less presupposes that it differ visually from the kinds of shows that preceded it. If were pulling back the curtain, opening your eyes to a different sort of protagonist or subject matter, something has cracked open for all the creative members of a team, says Frohna, who shoots with his preferred Canon Cinema EOS C300 Mark II. We dont want to make another slicker-looking police procedural. Were in new terrain. So with that, theres a new look to it.

Berkofsky agrees: Unexpected people are running shows and unexpected stories are being told in unexpected ways on television, which is very attractive to cinematographers because the people we used to look at in the features world are in television now.

This migration of indie film-makers to premium and streaming television was set in motion chiefly by changes to the film industry, which used to be more hospitable to the kinds of mid-budget projects whose creators now revel in televisions abundant resources and creative liberties. Most of us see ourselves as film-makers, but the differences between the mediums have more or less disappeared, says Ahlgren. Theres very few movies between $10m and $40m being produced; its become either very small indies or tentpole Hollywood blockbusters.

These auteur-driven series check all the boxes of those movies from the 90s we all look back on, adds Sprenger, who also shoots Netflixs female wrestling comedy Glow. The $5m-$20m realm has dwindled, and a lot of those film-makers and crew members are moving to premium television. And youre getting seen by millions of people, which is sometimes the turn-off for a handmade indie film.

Where the streets of Los Angeles were once overflowing with film crews, youre now more likely to happen upon a television production, not only in Hollywood but in Atlanta, New Orleans and Vancouver, where Altered Carbon shoots. I moved out to Los Angeles maybe 10 years ago and theres a night-and-day difference between how incredibly busy everyone is crew-wise, says Sprenger. If youre lucky, you get work on something that feels like a movie, and know youll have eyeballs on it when its done.

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Snoke Screens: Designing the User Interfaces In The Last Jedi



You’ll find no touch screens in Star Wars: The Last Jedi—not even when you can watch it at home next month (March 13 for digital, two weeks later for physical). Same goes for mice and keyboards. They’re all too familiar, too of-this-world, to appear in a galaxy so far, far away. What you’ll find instead are interface displays, and lots of them. Whether in an X-wing’s cockpit or the bridge of a Star Destroyer, every display in The Last Jedi exists to support the story—to provide a graphical complement to the film’s action and dialogue.

And it started with the film’s director. “Whenever possible, Rian [Johnson] wanted us to use practical graphics to enforce the narrative,” says creative director Andrew Booth, who oversaw the creation of TLJ’s assorted instrument clusters, targeting systems, medical readouts, and tactical displays. “It would actually appear in the script that you look at a screen and gain a deeper understanding of what’s happening. The challenge was always, what can we do in-camera to create something that feels real and believable?”

What’s impressive about the interfaces in The Last Jedi is that they feel believable not just to the audience, but to the film’s dramatis personae. In the real world, designers design for one person: the user. But creatives like Booth—whose design agency, BLIND LTD, has been behind the look and feel of some of this century’s biggest blockbusters, including every Star Wars film from TFA onward—designed the practical displays in The Last Jedi with at least three groups of people in mind: the characters, the actors depicting those characters, and the folks watching along in theaters.

Consider the film’s opening scene, in which (fair warning: plot points and spoilers from here on out) Commander Poe Dameron calls General Hux. The point of Poe’s call is to buy time; he’s charging the engines on his X-wing so he can stage a surprise attack on the First Order Dreadnought that’s poised to obliterate his Resistance buddies planetside. It’s a plan the audience comes to understand when the camera cuts to a display inside Poe’s starfighter that shows the status of his boosters.

The inside of Poe’s X-wing. The top display depicts the Dreadnaught tower Poe attacks at the beginning of the film; the middle one shows the status bar for his X-wing’s engines; and the bottom one, which is all wonky, visualizes his spaceship’s damaged targeting system.

“For us, that’s a perfect piece of storytelling,” Booth says. “Now you’ve got exposition, drama, and tension all wrapped up in this close-up of a progress bar.” And because it’s a practical effect, that tension is experienced by audience, actor, and character alike. In fact, every single display in Poe’s cockpit pulls triple duty: The top one depicts the tower Poe is attacking; the middle one shows the status bar for his X-wing’s engines; and the bottom one, which is all wonky, visualizes his spaceship’s damaged targeting system, which BB-8 spends much of the sequence trying to repair.

These kinds of details don’t always make it into the final cut of a film, and even when they do, audiences don’t always notice them. Not explicitly, anyway. “For us, these graphics are more about shape and form than they are about spelling things out—but they do allow people to feel what’s going on in a scene, and they help support the actor’s performance,” Booth says.


The WIRED Guide to Star Wars

Similar details abound inside the spacecraft from Canto Bight, the opulent casino city. The graphics aboard the ship that DJ and BB-8 steal are shiny. Slinky. Sumptuous. A striking contrast to the First Order’s stark, militaristic vibes and the ragtag aesthetics of the Resistance. “This was us trying to evoke a different world,” Booth says.

But even the film’s familiar spaces brim with visual information. Toward the end of the film, on the chalk-dusted mining planet Crait, the audience gets multiple glimpses inside Kylo Ren’s shuttle, from which he has orchestrated the First Order’s assault on what remains of the Resistance. “The aesthetic is sharp, clean, systematic—just like the First Order, itself, and the color palette is all red, grey, black and white,” Booth says.

Inside Kylo Ren’s shuttle, above the battle on Crait.

These are classic, higher-order stylistic cues, many of which date back to the original trilogy. During pre-production on The Force Awakens BLIND LTD researched the original designs closely, and collaborated with production designers Rick Carter and Darren Gilford to get the look and feel just right. The graphics continued to evolve with Lucasfilm design supervisor Kevin Jenkins and production designer Rick Heinrichs on The Last Jedi. They immediately help viewers understand where they are and whose ship it is. (The Resistance’s aesthetic, by contrast, is analog and unstructured—its color palette dominated by orange, green, brown, and other earth colors.)

But look closely, and you’ll see that the screens inside the shuttle are loaded with details. Crait’s topography, the blast door separating the Resistance from the First Order, the line of AT-ATs—they’re all depicted on screens, often for the briefest of moments. “It gives you an idea of the level of detail that we put into these interfaces,” Booth says. “It’s one of the things we pride ourselves on: You don’t necessarily always see it, but you sure as hell feel it.”

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