Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Chogokin Memories: A Look Back at the Miniature Voltron I Action Figure from Matchbox

Last Christmas, I did a retrospective post about the massive influx of Japanese robot toys that hit U.S. toy stores during the Christmas season of 1984. In the time since that post, I've learned that Japanese robot toys have their own system of taxonomy to classify the toys according to build, features, and material composition. For example, the term "chogokin" specifically refers to Japanese robot toys that were made during the 70s and 80s and featured a significant amount of die-cast metal. Chogokin toys were usually produced in one of two sizes: "ST" (or "standard"), which meant that the toy was around 5 inches high, and "DX" (or "deluxe"), which meant that the toy was much larger than 5 inches in height and came with more complex features.

This post is devoted to one of the ST chogokin toys that I had as a kid: the miniature 6 inch Voltron I action figure, which was released by Matchbox in 1984. There's quite a history regarding the Voltron anime series and its related merchandise--namely, that "Voltron I" was actually the super robot combiner from the anime series Armored Fleet Dairugger XV and that the Matchbox Voltron toys were actually repackaged toys that were made by Popy, the subsidiary of Bandai that is credited with the creation of chogokin-style toys. Click below to see a Voltron I picture gallery and to learn more about this imported version of a Japanese toy phenomenon.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Rebuilding Kenner's Star Wars Micro Collection, Brick by Brick

Toy collecting has become such a popular hobby that some collectors customize toys to appear like characters from popular fantasy, horror and sci-fi franchises. Sometimes, these customizations are done of compensate for the lack of licensed toys made in the likeness of a particular character (or even a particular vehicle), but what happens when a toy is used to recreate a previously released licensed toy?

Meet Eric Druon, a.k.a. BaronSat. BaronSat has produced a series of customized toy kits by using Lego bricks and you can see most of his work on his site, the BaronSat Workshop. He has assembled kits based on characters, settings and vehicles from franchises such as Battlestar Galactica, Planet of the Apes, Robotech, Star Trek and Star Wars, and you can even purchase some of these customizations--either as complete kits or as assembly instructions--through BaronSat's site.

Of the many amazing things that BaronSat shares on his site, I think that the most unique are his recreations of the two Death Star playsets that were released by Kenner as part of its short-lived Star Wars Micro Collection toy line during the early 80s. Not only do these sets recreate the exact details of the playsets, but they have been re-scaled to accommodate Lego Star Wars minifigs. Click below to see pictures of the two customized Lego playsets and how they compare to Kenner's originals. Photos are provided courtesy of the BaronSat Workshop, the Star Wars Collectors Archive, and the Rebel Scum.com site.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Nerd Rant: Is High-Definition Technology Killing Practical Special Effects?

At the end of this week, theaters across the country will debut The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the long-awaited film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's prequel story for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. While the film itself is getting positive reviews, I've noticed that many of the critics have also commented on one of the film's technical aspects--namely, the visual effect has resulted from the film being shot at 48 frames per second (fps) instead of the traditional 24 fps. The film's director, Peter Jackson, chose this new format for the sake of giving his film better image definition; some critics think that Jackson has achieved his goal in spades, while others think that the movie looks much more artificial than had it been shot at the normal frame rate.

In particular, Andrew O'Hehir's made this observation about the 48 fps format when he saw The Hobbit: "(F)or me ... this cinematic innovation apparently meant to create an atmosphere of magic realism makes the whole thing look immensely more fake. Mountains and fortresses that are presumably digital creations look like painted backdrops; humanoid figures of hobbits, dwarves and wizards appear just as artificial as the goblins, specters and trolls. ... Personally, I found the Thomas Kinkade-like glow of The Hobbit’s images both fascinating and disconcerting, and felt that it accentuated the movie’s other flaws."

I've noticed before on Blu-ray how higher definition can make multi-million dollar film productions look cheaper than they actually are, as if they were shot for television instead of the silver screen. Granted, this doesn't happen on all Blu-ray transfers--for example, the Blu-rays for Jaws and the Alien series look fantastic--but I've noticed it happening with enough frequency that I can only wonder how things will further change when and if the 48 fps format becomes the industry standard. In short, here's my question: Can practical special effects still be used if high-definition technology exposes their artificiality, or will only high-definition CGI special effects technology be able to keep up with the new fps format?

Essentially, special effects involve the creation of celluloid-ready optical illusions in order to enhance the audience's experience of watching a movie. In some ways, special effects are like stage magic: Just as magicians have to carefully control what a live audience can and cannot see in order to make stage tricks appear magical, special effects artists have to control what a movie audience can and cannot see in order to maintain their suspension of disbelief. The effects can be a complicated as stop motion animation or as (relatively) simple as forced perspective shots, and many special effects techniques have deliberately exploited the shortcomings of film as a medium to keep the audience unaware of the effects' artifice. So, what happens when special effects artists are forced to contend with a film format that is intended to show everything in such high detail?

Of course, filmmakers want fake things to appear real for the purpose of capturing the audience's imagination. Yet film projects that are heavily based on special effects--scale miniatures, animatronic costumes and puppets, complex applications of makeup, etc.--shouldn't look too real, because if they do they'll look exactly like what they really are: fake. Will practical special effects still have a place in 48 fps movies, or will the 48 fps format serve as another damaging blow against the usage of practical effects and further promote the usage of CGI special effects in their place?

Monday, December 10, 2012

I'll Be Block: The Terminator Buildable Construction Playset

With Lego raking in the cash through licenses such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and superheroes from both DC and Marvel Comics, it's inevitable that Lego's competitors will follow suit. For example, Best-Lock Construction Toys has picked up the Terminator license and has released The Terminator Buildable Construction Playset.

According to the product's description, "Recreate your favorite scenes from the blockbuster The Terminator movies with this superb value building block set, The Terminator Buildable Construction Playset, from Best-Lock Construction Toys. Containing over 1,000 pieces, The Terminator comes to life in block form and features all the essential elements to role play your very own Judgement Day, including; three Aerial Hunter-Killer models and two Tank Hunter-Killer models plus an army of T-800 cyborg figures as well as the iconic Terminator figure and a number of other models and accessories. This block set provides hours of fun for children aged five years up and can build everything illustrated at the same time, following the full-color, step-by-step building instructions which are included." I don't know if this set will allow builders to make larger Skynet war machines, such as the Harvester or the HK Centurion, although I'd be surprised if you could not with over 1,000 pieces at your disposal.

Best-Lock Construction Toys has also picked up the Stargate license, and it has released a few kits based on the Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis series. (Both of these TV shows were cancelled years ago, but I suppose that this is better late than never.) For additional brick-based sci-fi fun, Best-Lock has a "War of the Outer Planets" line, which includes space ships that look suspiciously similar to ship designs from Battlestar Galactica.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

NECA's Big Red Predator: From Fan Film to Collectible Figure

I'll say this for the Predator franchise: Even though Hollywood doesn't have a clear idea of what to do with it, this creative property sure does produce some fascinating merchandise. Even though it only has produced only three stand-alone movies and two crossover movies during the last quarter century, Predator merchandise has included comic books, novels, video games, and collectibles that range from never-before-seen mask and creature designs to replicas of Predators from both the movies and the comic books. The fourth Predator movie appears to be stuck in development hell, but that hasn't stopped NECA from moving into new Predator merchandising territory.

NECA will be releasing the Big Red Predator figure, the first--and so far only--Predator figure that's based on a fan-made film. This seven-inch figure is based on a Predator that was seen in the 2003 fan film Batman: Dead End. In addition to the bold color scheme of its armor, the figure also comes with interchangeable hands and two katana swords.

The rear packaging for the Big Red Predator figure.

While it may seem unusual for NECA to use a fan film as the source of a new Predator figure design, it should be noted that Dead End was directed by special effects veteran Sandy Collora. Collora's professional work includes creature design work for films such as Leviathan, Jurassic Park, Men In Black, and Predator 2. Click here to see more pictures of the Big Red Predator figure, which is scheduled for shipping in January 2013.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Promising Ghost Story Gets Orphaned in The Orphanage (2007)

Did you ever watch a movie that you want to like but you simply can't because it doesn't adhere to its own internal logic? If you do, then you know how I feel about The Orphanage, a 2007 Spanish horror film directed by Juan Antonio Bayona.

The Orphanage is about Laura (Belen Rueda) and her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) who are renovating an orphanage into a home for special needs children. Laura herself was an orphan at the very same orphanage that she and her husband are restoring and they even have an adopted child of their own, Simon (Roger Princep). A series of mysterious incidents begin to occur as Laura and Carlos prepare the building for new occupants, incidents that culminate with the disappearance of Simon on the very day of the orphanage's reopening. Laura's subsequent search for Simon leads her into the building's forgotten past and the dark secrets that it hides.

As a gothic ghost story, The Orphanage drips with unrealized potential. The cinematography is gorgeous and creepy in equal measures, the underlying themes and symbolism adds emotional weight to story's proceedings, and performances given by the principle cast make you feel for the characters and their plight. The story builds to a crushing and bittersweet finale, but that feeling rapidly fades when you begin to think about the story and realize that much of its details don't make sense. Character motivations and actions don't add up, and curious details surface that go unresolved even though they should not. There's even a hidden door that plays a major part in the story, yet it doesn't take much to realize that the details behind the door--who finds it, how it is found, and why it was hidden in the first place--weren't very well thought out by the script writer.

Overall, the viewing experience that comes from seeing The Orphanage is akin to waking up from an intense, feverish dream and then realizing that what you just experienced--regardless of its emotional power--can't stand up to the scrutiny of conscious thought. In that regard, it felt like this movie was just a few script rewrites away from being a better movie. Perhaps if one or more of the secondary characters, subplots or themes had been removed, the total narrative would be greater than the sum of its many parts.

In his review, Roger Ebert wrote that The Orphanage "is deliberately aimed at viewers with developed attention spans". I think that the exact opposite is true: The viewers who pay close attention to the film's minutia will be the ones who find its biggest faults, regardless of how deftly the film appears to utilize the narrative conventions that are common in stories about ghosts and haunted houses. Without giving too much away, it would seem that the moral of The Orphanage is that if anyone ever goes missing in or around a recently renovated building, please be sure to check the building's blueprints before consulting with a psychic. Speaking as a horror fan, this is not the kind of concluding message that any decent fright flick should leave with its audience.

Monday, December 3, 2012

A Look Back at Four Fantastic Giant Robot Games for the SNES

As a long-time fan of giant robot stuff like the Robotech anime series and the Zoids toy line, I'm frequently drawn like a bee to honey to giant robot video games. By "giant robot video games", I'm not talking about any of the Transformers games (where sentient robots fight other sentient robots) or games such as the Super Robot Wars series (where the robots are just pieces that players move around on the board as part of a strategy game). No, I'm talking about games that allow you to control robots that are piloted by people, something along the lines of a Japanese "real robot" anime series. For games of this variety, some of the best were made for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) back in the 1990s. Click below for a list of four SNES games that allowed players to assume control of a big 'bot and lay waste to various digital landscapes and pummel the bejesus out of other robots.