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Robbie Williams selling his soul for World Cup gig – Kremlin critic

1 min read

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A long-time Kremlin critic lambasted Robbie Williams for deciding to sing at the World Cup opening ceremony in Moscow on Thursday, while a campaign group offered to brief the British pop star on Russia’s human rights record.

Robbie Williams selling his soul for World Cup gig - Kremlin critic
FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football – Soccer Aid 2018 – England v Soccer Aid World XI – Old Trafford, Manchester, Britain – June 10, 2018 Robbie Williams before the match Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Boyers -/File Photo

British businessman Bill Browder, who accuses President Vladimir Putin of conducting a personal vendetta against him, took to Twitter to question why Williams was performing while Russia was under western sanctions.

“There’s lots of ways to make money @robbiewilliams, but selling your soul to a dictator shouldn’t be one of them. Shame on you,” Browder wrote.

Russia is keen to use the soccer tournament to signal that despite the sanctions, imposed over its 2014 annexation of Crimea and role in a rebellion in eastern Ukraine, it remains a top player on the global stage.

The singer’s PR team declined comment. However, Williams, who has previously sung at private parties organized by wealthy Russians, told Reuters he liked visiting the country and performing at the opening ceremony was an honor.

U.S.-born Browder was once a major investor in Russia. He has led a campaign to expose corruption and punish officials he blames for the 2009 death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer he employed, in a Moscow prison.

The U.S. Treasury Department subsequently imposed its own sanctions under a 2012 law known as the Magnitsky Act.

Last year a Russian court sentenced Browder to nine years in prison in absentia for deliberate bankruptcy and tax evasion. Browder, who heads investment fund Hermitage Capital Management, has dismissed the allegations.

Human Rights Watch said it had called on world leaders to stay away from the event, pointing to Russia’s rights record and its role in the Syrian war.

“We certainly see the way the Russian government and President Putin is using the World Cup and in particular the opening ceremony as a way of legitimizing his power and his authority,” the group’s director for Europe and Central Asia, Hugh Williamson, said.

“We’d be happy to brief (Williams) on the human rights situation in Russia … so that he’s well informed when he gets there. He could also make a positive contribution if he speaks out during his visit,” he added.

The tournament kicks off on Thursday with a match between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Reporting by Polina Ivanova; Editing by David Stamp

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Gaming

How American Vandal expertly crafted a doc (that just happened to be fiction)

5 min read

The American Vandal creative team chats with Ars at ATX TV Festival 2018.

AUSTIN, Texas—Among the reasons Netflix’s American Vandal worked: dedication, not just to the bit but to the DNA. The creative team had an obsession with true crime documentaries, obviously. But they didn’t set out to make an homage, showrunner Dan Lagana and co-creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda told Ars at this summer’s ATX TV Festival. Instead, they wanted to approach their fictional, scripted high school drama the exact same way Sarah Koenig (Serial) or Andrew Jarecki (The Jinx) would—like they were creating the most important documentary in the world.

“We didn’t want to do a parody. We love that stuff,” Yacenda later told the crowd during the show’s panel. “Sarah Koenig is a genius, what she did bringing us in as an unreliable narrator told a story in a way journalists wouldn’t before. We thought maybe we can do this for fictional narrative… if we use the tools our favorite documentarians use to get the audience to care, could we get people to care about dicks?”

The answer in retrospect is clearer than whether or not Adnan did it. American Vandal may look like a joke-y investigation of some juvenile high school prank at first glance, but over the course of its eight-episode first season, the show revealed layer upon layer of sharp social commentary. It dealt with the justice system, social media’s impact on our perceptions of others, and the complications of attention and crowdsourcing in reporting just as much as the show depicted the unbelievable hubris of a teen male. The surprise hit landed on “best of TV” lists everywhere at the end of 2017 (Ars included), and the team even snagged a prestigious Peabody Award this spring.

And while the story itself deserves much of the credit, talking with Yacenda, Perrault, and Lagana reveals that their approach to the show’s tech and production may have been just as clever.

Documentary DNA

The first rule of documentary filmmaking may be to simply always have the camera running. You need stuff—action footage of your subject, spontaneous happenings buried in b-roll, and lots and lots of interviews. The Vandal team knew this well; Perrault and Yacenda previously made many documentary shorts, including a series of faux-30 for 30s on things like Space Jam and Rocky IV.

Given that Vandal set out to be a series from the start, the amount of content recorded this time around sounds staggering. Perrault took upwards of 9,000 images in a day or two in case the team needed an impromptu iPhone still later on (and the Vandal team definitely used iPhones; production enlisted roughly 30 of them). Yacenda would have actors improv before ever shooting a scripted take in order to have more “real” footage in the can; he shot individual unscripted doc-style interviews with actors in character, too. The team even recorded extra voice-over tracks after filming everything else to increase the flexibility for everyone in the editing suites.

Yaceda, Perrault, and Lagana also made the decision to let Tyler Alvarez (the actor starring as A/V club whiz Peter Maldonado) conduct his own reporting and documenting throughout production. The team says the young actor got good at it quickly, writing out questions to grill his peers and pursuing his own theories with the tenacity of a young journalist trying to prove himself. They needed to tell him to dumb down the inquiries at times so as to not ruin the story. “He could absolutely run a three-hour interview with Alex Trimboli,” Perrault says.

The Vandal team’s documentary ethos naturally extends off-script, too. They hired a director of photography who previously worked on Netflix’s Amanda Knox documentary and Chef’s Table. They snagged editors who previously cut for Michael Moore. Production values soared so sky high at some points that they even had to be reined in occasionally. (The show does, after all, focus on a documentary made by high schoolers.)

“It was a producer’s dream,” executive producer Joe Farrell said during the show’s ATX TV Festival panel. “Someone would come say, ‘Hey, we probably didn’t get that shot.’ Well, they’re 17, they probably wouldn’t have gotten it anyway.”

Nana know-how

American Vandal‘s technical abilities didn’t only manifest off-camera, of course. One of the show’s most charming elements was its ability to take the familiar crime documentary tropes—courtroom footage, digital scene recreations, direct evidence visuals, etc.—and translate them into high school use. The team spent loads of time hanging with, observing, and interviewing genuine high schoolers to get this just right… and they built one of the best and most insightful high school life depictions (as told through a crime documentary lens).

“We watch a lot of true crime, so we’d take all the elements from paper trails to signed confessions and ask, what’s the high school version of this?” Perrault tells Ars. “The obvious answer to that is kids’ social media. Instead of court docs or confessions from the Averys, it’s Facebook comments as to whether you drank 11 beers or not.”

The ubiquity of phones being used in production helped to this end, but the Vandal team would run into instances when major social media platforms wouldn’t agree to having their likeness appear (because maybe Instagram, for instance, wouldn’t want to be viewed as the platform of high school keggers). So the team thought through informal rules for social media shooting—what prompted a character to pull out their phone? Why would they save something to a camera roll versus sharing on snapchat?—and then relied on their VFX guru, Peter Poot, to take those raw images and make them indistinguishable from the social media we all consume daily.

“[Fake social] would shatter the whole illusion. If legal says we can’t use that, well we’ll blur it,” Yacenda recalls. “We can’t make something that doesn’t exist. Our audience is so media literate that even if the font is slightly off, it could take you out. ‘No, that’s not what Snapchat looks like.’”

Combining all these production threads likely brought about the technical culmination of Vandal’s first season: episode 5, which is called “Premature Theories” but better known for a sequence called Nana’s party. Inspired by someone in the writer’s room who actually threw a party at their Nana’s place in Framingham, Massachusetts, back in 1999, Perrault says, the sequence blended the team’s genuine documentary-making blueprint, deep knowledge of teens and their social media habits, and savvy (and adept) filmmaking techniques. For viewers, it’s a (deeply, deeply funny) flurry of post-event interviews, social media glimpses from all angles, and digital scene recreations you won’t forget any time soon.

“Nana’s party took so much time,” Yacenda recalls. “Post took so long, graphics took so long. Our sound team did a great job—we had to come in and couldn’t just get standard party walla. We needed people talking at various points of the party so viewers can hear it just enough. So getting all those layers perfectly, that was one of the more labor-intensive sequences from a technical perspective.”

Evidently, there are many, many more of these hyper-detailed flourishes awaiting anyone ready to dive into season one, whether it’s for the first time or for a rewatch while anxiously waiting on season two (which has been confirmed, but details remain unannounced). “All the [social media script] is incredibly intricate,” Lagana said during the panel, responding to a question about whether some of the clever, complex in-jokes occurred by happenstance. Perrault quickly confirmed this, chuckling to himself as he encouraged those in the room to pay close attention.

“It’s one of the funner details to play with,” he interrupted. “Actually, if you pause things, you’ll even notice things laid into the background—like one of the characters might call Wingstop three times a day.”

Listing image by Tyler Golden / Netflix

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Gaming

IndieGames.com ‘Perceptions Of The Dead 2’ Tells Sometimes Cute, Sometimes Spooky Ghost Stories

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GVLbn4.jpg

After a live stream from a haunted hospital, Jill has found herself not just investigating hauntings, but dealing with the fact that ghosts are real. Some of them could even use her help, too, but when she tries to do something for a ghost who’s been following her, she starts to see some of the more unsettling sides of ghosts in visual novel Perceptions of the Dead 2.

Perceptions of the Dead 2 will have you working to find Jill’s missing friend, Tyrone, while also doing what they can to help out a spirit in need. Doing this will require a little help from Jill’s friends to get the job done, and you can get to know these charming, quirky people while you’re all working together. Just be careful of the decisions you make involving these people, as you can accidentally change the course of the story in some dangerous ways with some seemingly innocuous choices.

Perceptions of the Dead 2 is gorgeous to behold with some truly wonderful characters and connections between them, offering a narrative treat for those who like stories of friendship and scary things like living in the world of the dead. But with great pals, including some less-than-living ones, is it really all that scary any more?

Perceptions of the Dead 2 is available for $7.99 on Itch.io and Steam. For more information on the game and developer Ithaqua Labs, you can head to the developer’s site or follow them on YouTube and Twitter.

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Gaming

Cell-sized ‘microlasers’ could regulate brain activity

0 min read

Even in their rough state, the bead lasers can work for at least five hours of continuous use, even if you immerse them in blood or other less-than-pristine environments. They don’t wear out quickly, either. The team found that beads pulled “off the shelf” months or years later still function as lasers. And if you need to redirect the lasers, you can use the same infrared light you’d use to excite them.

Refinement is necessary before this is useful. Researchers are still looking at how they can tweak the nanoparticle elements and the makeup of the beads themselves to both optimize performance and determine the laser light they get. The implications could be far-reaching, though. Berkeley noted that you could use this to control neuron activity, which might help with brain diseases. It might also be helpful for sensors that detect chemical and environmental changes, or a new wave of optical chips. Any of these developments are likely years away, but there’s a lot of potential in these minuscule pieces of plastic.

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