Disney tech smooths out bad CG hair days

Disney is unequivocally the world’s leader in 3D simulations of hair — something of a niche talent in a way, but useful if you make movies like Tangled, where hair is basically the main character. A new bit of research from the company makes it easier for animators to have hair follow their artistic intent while also moving realistically.

The problem Disney Research aimed to solve was a compromise that animators have had to make when making the hair on characters do what the scene requires. While the hair will ultimately be rendered in glorious high definition and with detailed physics, it’s too computationally expensive to do that while composing the scene.

Should a young warrior in her tent be wearing her hair up or down? Should it fly out when she turns her head quickly to draw attention to the movement, or stay weighed down so the audience isn’t distracted? Trying various combinations of these things can eat up hours of rendering time. So, like any smart artist, they rough it out first:

“Artists typically resort to lower-resolution simulations, where iterations are faster and manual edits possible,” reads the paper describing the new system. “But unfortunately, the parameter values determined in this way can only serve as an initial guess for the full-resolution simulation, which often behaves very different from its coarse counterpart when the same parameters are used.”

The solution proposed by the researchers is basically to use that “initial guess” to inform a high-resolution simulation of just a handful of hairs. These “guide” hairs act as feedback for the original simulation, bringing a much better idea of how the rest will act when fully rendered.

The guide hairs will cause hair to clump as in the upper right, while faded affinities or an outline-based guide (below, left and right) would allow for more natural motion if desired.

And because there are only a couple of them, their finer simulated characteristics can be tweaked and re-tweaked with minimal time. So an artist can fine-tune a flick of the ponytail or a puff of air on the bangs to create the desired effect, and not have to trust to chance that it’ll look like that in the final product.

This isn’t a trivial thing to engineer, of course, and much of the paper describes the schemes the team created to make sure that no weirdness occurs because of the interactions of the high-def and low-def hair systems.

It’s still very early: it isn’t meant to simulate more complex hair motions like twisting, and they want to add better ways of spreading out the affinity of the bulk hair with the special guide hairs (as seen at right). But no doubt there are animators out there who can’t wait to get their hands on this once it gets where it’s going.

For the first time, Netflix tops HBO for most Emmy nominations

Netflix has broken HBO’s 17-year streak as the most nominated network at the Emmy Awards.

In the nominations released this afternoon, Netflix came out slightly ahead, with 112 nominations compared to HBO’s 108. Those include Best Comedy nods for GLOW and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, as well as Best Drama nominations for The Crown and Stranger Things.

Other Netflix shows got some love as well. Jordan Crook, my co-host on the Original Content podcast, will be glad to know that Jason Bateman was nominated for his work as both actor and director on Ozark. Meanwhile, Black Mirror‘s “USS Callister” episode was nominated for Best Television Movie.

The other big streaming services had good news, too. Hulu received 27 nominations, with last year’s Best Drama winner The Handmaid’s Tale up for the big award again. Handmaid’s Tale was one of the most-nominated shows overall, although its 20 nominations were just shy of Westworld‘s 21 and Game of Thrones’ 22. (These are nominations for GoT’s seventh season, which aired last summer.)

Meanwhile, Amazon’s shows received 22 nominations, including a Best Comedy nod for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

The winners will be announced in a ceremony hosted by Colin Jost and Michael Che on Sept. 17.

China’s largest music streaming business is planning a US IPO

Fresh from Spotify’s unique direct listing in the U.S., another huge streaming service is about to follow suit and go public in America.

Tencent Music Entertainment (TME) has nothing like the global profile of Spotify, but China’s top streaming service is heading for the U.S. public markets according to a filing made this weekend by parent company Tencent, the $500 billion Chinese internet giant which plans to spin the music business out.

At this point, specific financial details around the listing aren’t being released, but past reports have suggested that it could raise as much as $1 billion and give TME a valuation of $30 billion. That would be quite a jump from its most recent $12 billion valuation and certainly not guaranteed given that others from China, including Xiaomi, has fallen short of ambitious IPO valuation targets.

But there’s precedent here since Tencent made a similar move last year when it broke off China Literature, its digital books business unit, and listed it in Hong Kong with some success. Hong Kong had also been mooted as a destination for TME, but the Tencent filing stated the firm’s intention to “spin-off by way of a separate listing… on a recognized stock exchange in the United States.”

While it seems unlikely that Tencent will follow Spotify and adopt a direct listing — which ditches with the conventional process of an IPO price and engaging banks — it may well call on its rival for pointers since they are both mutual investors.

The duo announced an equity swap deal in December that could see them team up on business in the future. At the time it was certainly a sign that both sides were getting into shape to go public, and TME’s IPO would wrap that up.

‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ director Peyton Reed on following ‘Infinity War’

If you watch Ant-Man and the Wasp hoping for clues to the aftermath of Avengers: Infinity War, you’ll probably be disappointed: Although the just-released film coming out a few months after Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp actually takes place earlier, and it’s focused almost entirely on the personal struggles of its heroes.

In fact, after Infinity War, there was at least one article wondering, “How the hell are we supposed to care about Ant-Man and the Wasp now?” In other words, after you’ve watched armies of Marvel heroes battling for the fate of the universe, how can you care about an adventure that takes place earlier, with a mere two superheroes?

Peyton Reed, director of both Ant-Man films, told me he wasn’t worried about the stakes feeling too low. There’s some precendent, after all, with Ant-Man came out a few months after Avengers: Age of Ultron.

“That really is part of the Ant-Man movies — the stakes are really high … they’re just personal stakes,” Reed said. “You know it’s not a gigantic, genocidal villain like Infinity War. On that level, we don’t want to top Thanos.”

Instead, Reed said these films have “very different storytelling ambitions,” and in fact his hope is that they have “the most personal tone” of the Marvel films.

Ant Man and the Wasp

At the same time, it’s also a sequel, and the 20th (!) film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Asked how he approaches the audience when you’re this deep into a mega-franchise, Reed said, “I really just use myself the moviegoer, as a litmus test in terms of what they have and haven’t seen. [At] Marvel, no one wants to repeat themselves, no one wants to bore an audience.”

One of the big changes from the first Ant-Man is right there in the title: Hope van Dyne (played by Evangeline Lilly) is no longer just assisting her father Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Instead, she’s putting on her own costume, fighting crime directly and searching for her long-lost mother Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer). In many ways, Hope proves to be a more competent superhero than Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), who took on the mantle of Ant-Man in the previous film.

Rather remarkably, this is the first time a female superhero has made it into the title of a Marvel Cinematic Universe film (Marvel characters like Black Widow and Gamora have thus far been limited to team movies, or appeared as supporting characters in someone else’s story). Reed said even while he was developing Ant-Man, there was already a plan to have Hope step up in the second film — partly because, thanks to the comics, he’d always thought of the characters as a duo.

“It also felt like the organic way to forward these characters from the first movie,” he said. “We knew Hope van Dyne was very capable, but was being held back from that by her issues with her father. Now that the issues between them are resolved, we can create a really fully-formed hero.”

The sequel also provided more of an opportunity to explore the the sub-microscopic “quantum realm” introduced in Ant-Man. The setting may feel pretty out-there, but Reed said he worked with the film’s technical consultant Spyridon Michalakis (a quantum physicist at Caltech) to try to get the science right.

Ant Man and the Wasp

“We don’t want to give the audience a headache — but 20, 30, 50 years form now, we don’t want people to say, ‘Oh man, that was way off, that has no bearing on reality,'” Reed said.

As an example, he pointed to the film’s treatment of quantum entanglement as a way to incorporate a real scientific concept while introducing it in a way that’s funny and character-driven.

Ant-Man and the Wasp also takes better advantage of real San Francisco locations like Lombard Street — Reed noted that while the first film took place in SF, much of the action was limited to Hank Pym’s house. This time around, he wanted to “open up and be in actual San Francisco,” which created its own challenges, particularly since the new movie is also playing with Scott’s ability to both shrink and increase his size.

“Shooting in daylight, exterior San Francisco, you had to believe that Giant Man was really there,” Reed said. “That was probably the biggest overall challenge — we’d done a shrinking movie already, so we played with variable size while trying to keep it photo realistic.”

While Reed’s found new success with superheroes, I also wondered if he ever worries that Marvel and Marvel-style blockbusters are crowding out the studio comedies that he made his name with, like Bring It On and Down With Love. Reed countered that this was an issue “long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe,” with studios either wanting to make “low, low budget movies” or giant blockbusters.

“I don’t think it any tougher now,” he said. “Honestly, in some ways it’s a bit easier, because not only studios but people like Netflix are financing comedies and stuff like that. I guess what I’m saying is: It’s always been tough.”

Univision reportedly mulling sale of Fusion Media Group

According to sources cited by The Wall Street Journal, Univision is mulling the sale of the brand portfolio that includes popular sites like Gizmodo, Deadspin, The Root, Lifehacker and a chunk of The Onion.

Last year, the Spanish language broadcaster reportedly attempted to offload a 20-percent stake in the company for $200 million, but ultimately failed to find any takers, due to “skittish” potential investors.

All of this comes less than two years after Univision purchased Gawker Media, picking up the large suite of sites for $135 million, after the brand was felled by a Hulk Hogan lawsuit partially bankrolled by Peter Thiel. The brand was then folded into Fusion Media Group, a created four months prior when Univision bought out Disney’s stake in Fusion TV.

The move was largely seen as an attempt to appeal to a younger demo by a broadcast company that has otherwise had trouble adapting to current trends. But media is never easy, and in spite of a number of strong properties, the acquisition hasn’t exactly righted Univision’s ship.

Last month, Univision announced that former Media General head Vince Sandusky would replace Randy Falco as CEO, who stepped down shortly after the company abandoned plans to IPO. In April, the company laid off 150 employees as part of an on-going restructuring. 

Univision has yet to comment on the story.

Wikipedia goes dark in Spanish, Italian ahead of key EU vote on copyright

Wikipedia’s Italian and Spanish language versions have temporarily shut off access to their respective versions of the free online encyclopedia in Europe to protest against controversial components of a copyright reform package ahead of a key vote in the EU parliament tomorrow.

The protest follows a vote by the EU parliament’s legal affairs committee last month which backed the reforms — including the two most controversial elements: Article 13, which makes platforms directly liable for copyright infringements by their users — pushing them towards pre-filtering all content uploads, with all the associated potential chilling effects for free expression; and Article 11, which targets news aggregator business models by creating a neighboring right for snippets of journalistic content — aka ‘the link tax’, as critics dub it.

Visitors to Wikipedia in many parts of the EU (and further afield) are met with a banner which urges them to defend the open Internet against the controversial proposal by calling their MEP to voice their opposition to a measure critics describe as ‘censorship machines’, warning it will “weaken the values, culture and ecosystem on which Wikipedia is based”.

Clicking on a button to ‘call your MEP’ links through to anti-Article 13 campaign website, saveyourinternet.eu, where users can search for the phone number of their MEP and/or send an email to protest against the measure. The initiative is backed by a large coalition of digital and civil rights groups  — including the EFF, the Open Rights Group, and the Center for Democracy & Technology.

In a longer letter to visitors explaining its action, the Spanish Wikipedia community writes that: “If the proposal were approved in its current version, actions such as sharing a news item on social networks or accessing it through a search engine would become more complicated on the Internet; Wikipedia itself would be at risk.”

The Spanish language version of Wikipedia will remain dark throughout the EU parliament vote — which is due to take place at 10 o’clock (UTC) on July 5.

“We want to continue offering an open, free, collaborative and free work with verifiable content. We call on all members of the European Parliament to vote against the current text, to open it up for discussion and to consider the numerous proposals of the Wikimedia movement to protect access to knowledge; among them, the elimination of articles 11 and 13, the extension of the freedom of panorama to the whole EU and the preservation of the public domain,” it adds.

The Italian language version of Wikipedia went dark yesterday.

While the protest banners about the reform are appearing widely across Wikipedia, the decisions to block out encyclopedia content are less widespread — and are being taken by each local community of editors.

As you’d expect, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has been a very vocal critic of Article 13 — including lashing out at whoever was in control of the European Commission’s Twitter feed yesterday when they tried to suggest that online encyclopedias will not be affected by the proposal — by suggesting they would not be “considered” to be giving access to “large amounts of unauthorised protected content” by claiming most of their content would fall outside the scope of the law because it’s covered by Creative Commons licenses. (An interpretation of the proposed rules that anti-Article 13 campaigners dispute.)

And the commissioners drafting this portion of the directive do appear to have been mostly intending to regulate YouTube — which has been a target for record industry ire in recent years, over the relatively small royalties paid to artists vs streaming music services.

But critics argue this is a wrongheaded, sledgehammer-to-crack a nut approach to lawmaking — which will have the unintended consequence of damaging free expression and access to information online.

Wales shot back at the EC’s tweet — saying it’s “deeply inappropriate for the European Commission to be lobbying publicly and misleading the public in this way”.

A little later in the same Twitter thread, as more users had joined the argument, he added: “The Wikipedia community is not so narrow minded as to let the rest of the Internet suffer just because we are big enough that they try to throw us a bone. Justice matters.”

The EU parliament will vote as a whole tomorrow — when we’ll find out whether or not MEPs have been swayed by this latest #SaveYourInternet campaign.

Facebook confirms that it’s acquiring Bloomsbury AI

Facebook announced this morning that the London-based team at Bloomsbury AI will be joining the company.

My colleague Steve O’Hear broke the news about the acquisition, reporting that Facebook would deploy the team and technology to assist in its efforts to fight fake news and address other content issues.

In fact, Bloomsbury AI co-founder and Head of Research Sebastian Riedel also co-founded Factmata, a startup that purports to have developed tools to help brands combat fake news.

Facebook doesn’t quite put it that way in the announcement post. Instead, it says the team’s “expertise will strengthen Facebook’s efforts in natural language processing research, and help us further understand natural language and its applications” — but it certainly seems possible that those applications could include detecting misinformation and other problematic content.

While financial terms were not disclosed, we reported that Facebook is paying between $23 and $30 million. Bloomsbury AI is an alumnus of Entrepreneur First, and it was also backed by Fly.VC, Seedcamp, IQ Capital, UCL Technology Fund and the U.K. taxpayer-funded London Co-investment Fund.

Sony’s streaming TV service PlayStation Vue raises its prices, too

PlayStation Vue, welcome to the price hike party. Sony’s over-the-top TV streaming service is the latest to raise the price of its subscription service, which will now cost $5 more per month across all four tiers. That means Vue’s cheapest plan will now cost $44.99 per month instead of $39.99 per month. The most expensive plan will climb to $79.99 per month.

Remember when we thought streaming TV was a cheaper way to watch? No?

Above: PlayStation Vue’s current prices, before the price increases 

The pricing changes arrived on the same day that AT&T raised the cost of its streaming TV service, DirecTV Now, also by $5 per month.

And both changes follow similar moves by competitors, including the $5 per month increase announced by Sling TV only days ago, and the $5 per month increase announced by YouTube TV in March. That made Sling TV’s core package $25 per month and YouTube TV $40 per month.

According to the PlayStation Vue blog post, the decision to raise prices was attributed to the need to “keep pace with rising business costs and enable us to continue offering a better way to watch the best in live sports, entertainment, and news,” it says.

In reality, it’s clear that the whole market is shifting to a slightly higher price point for streaming TV, especially as the services expand their channel lineups to offer more broadcast stations and networks. However, for consumers, it may make these services a tougher sell – many customers signed up to avoid being nickel-and-dimed by cable TV providers with fees and lineups including channels they didn’t watch, and this is starting to feel the same.

In addition, there is a world of content out there on services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu’s on-demand service that’s far more affordable – and without requiring users to record shows with a “cloud” DVR that sometimes doesn’t even let you fast-forward through the commercials. For those who don’t care about sports or tracking particular shows, the streaming TV services may look less compelling as they become more expensive.

In its announcement, Sony vowed to continue to improve its service with the planned addition of more broadcast stations, content, and other feature enhancements.

PlayStation Vue is one of the older services on the market, but is also one of the smallest with an estimated 670,000 subscribers, far behind Sling TV’s 2.21 million or DirecTV Now’s 1.2 million. Likely, consumers believe – because of its name – a PlayStation is required to use it. But the service can be accessed from almost any device, including mobile phones and tablets, the web, Chromecast, Android TV, Apple TV, Fire TV and Roku.

It offers four different channel lineups, all of which include networks like AMC, CNBC, CNN, Discovery, Disney, ESPN, HGTV, Food Network FX, TLC, TNT, and others. In some areas, broadcasts stations including ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC are also available.

The pricing changes will go into effect starting on July 24, 2018, Sony says, and will impact both new and existing subscribers. Current subscribers will see the change reflected on their billing cycle after July 31, 2018. Vue’s standalone channels and add-ons are not affected by the price increases.

TrendKite expands its PR analytics platform by acquiring Insightpool and Union Metrics

TrendKite is making its first two acquisitions — according to CEO Erik Huddleston, they give the company “the last two components” needed for a complete PR analytics platform.

Until now, TrendKite’s main selling point was the ability to look at the articles written about a company and measure things like the audience reached and the impact on brand awareness.

But while that kind of journalistic coverage remains important, Huddleston said, “The world now is more complicated in terms of who has influence on the public.” That’s where Insightpool and its database of social media influencers comes in, allowing PR teams to find and pitch influencers who can help spread the company’s story.

Union Metrics, meanwhile, provides social media analytics. As Huddleston put it, “they do the same analytics about the conversation around the story as we do around the media coverage.”

With these acquisitions, he said TrendKite can build deeper integrations with products that were already being used together. In fact, he noted that the company had an existing partnership with Union Metrics, and he started thinking about Insightpool in the same context when a customer showed him how they were using TrendKite and Insightpool side-by-side, literally open in adjacent tabs.

The details of how Insightpool and Union Metrics will be packaged and priced as part of the TrendKite platform have yet to been determined. In the meantime, Huddleston said TrendKite will continue to support them as standalone products.

In addition, he said the entire teams of both companies (including Insightpool CEO Devon Wijesinghe and Union Metrics CEO Hayes Davis) will be joining TrendKite, with Insightpool giving Austin-based TrendKite a footprint in Atlanta.

The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. According to Crunchbase, Insightpool had raised $7.5 million from investors including TDF Ventures and Silicon Valley bank.

Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison is dead

Harlan Ellison, the 84-year-old author of some of science fiction’s best-known stories, has died. His death was announced on Twitter by Christine Valada.

In addition to short fiction, Ellison also wrote for the movies and TV, most notably penning “The City on the Edge of Forever” — he was vocally unhappy with how his script was rewritten, but the filmed version is still generally considered the finest episode of any Star Trek series.

Ellison also made his mark as an editor, thanks to his 1967 anthology “Dangerous Visions” — while the stories’ sex and violence, as well as their stylistic experimentation, may no longer seem groundbreaking, “Dangerous Visions” remains the definitive collection of New Wave science fiction.

He was also a teacher, most notably championing the work of “Kindred” author Octavia Butler after meeting her at the Clarion Workshop. And he experimented with other media as well, for example working on the computer game adaptation of his story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” and even providing the voice for the game’s evil AI.

But the stories were his greatest accomplishment. Tales like “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman” (about a future where being late is the greatest crime) and “The Deathbird” (a man witnesses the dying Earth’s final moments) and “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” (the saddest Las Vegas ghost story you’ll ever read) won him many awards, and have been anthologized many times. They show a pessimistic imagination at work — his most famous stories generally end in death or defeat — but thanks to the tremendous energy of Ellison’s writing, they’re never dour or boring.

Ellison was a hero of mine, especially when I was younger. He seemed like the kind of writer I wanted to be when I grew up, someone who could be wildly creative while remaining passionately engaged with the world’s real problems. In fact, I wrote an entire college application essay about how I wanted to be him — and later, when I had to write an adventure game for class, I borrowed shamelessly from the post-apocalyptic, underground suburbs of his story “A Boy and His Dog”.

(I wasn’t the only one who cribbed from Ellison. After seeing similarities with his short story/”Outer Limits” script “Soldier”, Ellison sued the makers of “The Terminator” — they settled, and his name was added to the credits.)

It’s been a while since Ellison was in the spotlight. He hasn’t written much in recent years, and since his reputation rested on short stories, he didn’t have a novel like “Dune” or a “Stranger in a Strange Land” or a “The Left Hand of Darkness” sitting on bookstore shelves for new readers to discover him.

Ellison never seemed to back down from controversy — not for nothing was a recent biography titled “A Lit Fuse” — so when he did get attention, it was usually because he’d said or done something offensive or dumb.

But the stories remain. For those who’ve read and loved them, what we’ll remember — what I’ll remember — is the strange hum of the Ticktockman, the laughter of the mad AI ruling over the ruins of the Earth, and a gambler’s tired eyes staring out from a haunted slot machine.