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Rex Steele – Nazi Smasher: Limited Edition

WooHoo Pictures (March 13 2004), Monkeysuit Press (July 22 2004), 2 disc set, 10 mins plus extensive supplements, 2:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital Surround, Not Rated, Retail: $15.00

Storyboard:

Set in the Amazon jungle during the dark days of the war, the story begins with newsreel “footage” (an homage to Citizen Kane’s opening) of Rex’s good deeds. Seems he’s an all-round beefcake hero extraordinaire, and responsible for the smashing of many an evil Nazi. With word of a secret temple base out in the Amazon jungle, Rex and his companion Miss Penny Thimble fly out to crack a Nazi jaw…only for their plane to go down in a violent storm. Leaving Penny behind to fix the damaged aircraft, Rex heads off towards the temple, where he’s instantly captured by Greta Schultz and her no good Nazi henchmen. While tied and bound, Greta introduces her criminal mastermind boss, Eval Schnitzler, who lets Rex in on a little secret plan to destroy America from the inside out.

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Can Rex break free and live up to his name? Will Penny stand stranded by the plane waiting for her hero to return? And just what IS that Nazi plan all about anyway? As the disc’s packaging asks…“What will happen?”

The Sweatbox Review:

If you’re among the few that haven’t heard the buzz surrounding this recent multi-award winning animated short, then consider this a wake-up call: Rex Steele is one of the most enjoyable ten minutes you are likely to encounter this year!

The brainchild of co-creators Bill Presing and Matt Peters, Rex is the archetypal all-American hero, devoid of anything but the heroics needed to do justice in a dirty world (in this case during the German invasion that was World War II). Originally dreamt up by Presing when he needed to complete a mock comic book as part of a college class project, Peters joined him in expanding the look and writing of Rex Steele. Both guys had come up through the ranks of television animation (between them working on such titles as Doug, Lizzie McGuire, 101 Dalmatians and Sabrina The Teenage Witch), honing their skills as artist and writer, with Rex being picked up as a comic series by the Monkeysuit Press.

The character began his latest route to notoriety when senior class New York University student Alex Woo asked to “borrow” Presing and Peters’ creation in order to create a short film based around Rex and his world. All three were fans of the 1930s serials that played before the main features of the time (which also inspired the feel of Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow), and decided to make their film, Star Wars style, one chapter of a much bigger adventure, with the intention (as Woo explains on the DVD) of creating a series or feature completing the story. But, thankfully, we don’t have to wait or even need to “return to the theater next week” in order to enjoy a satisfying conclusion, for this edition wraps things up nicely, albeit in an open-ended, tongue-in-cheek way. But it’s a suitable pay-off, and one that won’t leave fans and followers with frustrated mouths agape, even if they do all start begging for more, which is most likely.

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Although the film only lasts for around ten minutes, it plays through a solid story, with liberal doses of action and comedy, mostly centered on its square-jawed hero. There’s so much to see, though, that multiple viewings are essential just to pick out all the details, something that the brief length fortunately allows. In fact, there is so much going on in Rex Steele, that it is impossible just to think of this as a “student film”, from the exceptional animation (most of it full 24 frame stuff which puts some big studio features to shame) and vocals, to the exhilarating John Williams-esque music score and designs.

No wonder the film has won so many awards (including most recently the Director’s Guild of America Student Filmmaker Award and top gold prize in the Student Academy Awards animation category), since it is enthused with the passion and technical skill of its filmmakers and never smacks of the “hey, look at me!” posturing syndrome that a lot of shorts from young filmmakers can sometimes do. Of course the short has been produced with something of a “calling card” nature in mind, but it’s never too apparent – it seems these guys are having just as much fun making the flick as we do watching it.

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Production values are top notch, and if you’ve heard anything about the short, or seen the trailer, then you’ll know what to expect. Providing the voices of Rex and the male leads is Dan Blank, who studied animation alongside Woo and also provided voices for MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch series (currently moonlighting as a visual effects artist in The World Of Tomorrow). His take on Rex is spot-on, providing a voice that resonates with the feeling of the time…there’s no messing with THIS hero! Likewise he has great fun chewing up the scenery as Schnitzler, the German mastermind behind the crazed plot. Jumping in at the deep end on the female voices, Nicola Russell’s Penny and Lolita Shawany’s Greta match Blank with sheer enthusiasm for the characters, sounding pitch perfect in their respective roles.

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Backing them up is the previously mentioned bombastic music by Ryan Shore (nephew of Lord Of The Rings trilogy composer Howard), who here utilises the services of the Czech Philharmonic to provide a rousing score well steeped in the traditions of the great adventure themes. Seems the short may have been temp tracked by a couple of James Horner cues though…there’s the unmistakable mark of his The Rocketeer in the music. Bringing their all to the piece are the musicians, who get a chance to shine after years of recording various editions of film-themes for inclusion on compilation albums put out by the Silva Screen label. The reportedly 110-piece orchestra does Shore’s compositions proud, helping the action along with a pounding sound that sounds just as rich as film’s visuals are impressive, and easily up there with the robust sound of big movie soundtracks.

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Well, that’s the mood, sound and tone – how’s the darn thing LOOK? Well, though it is a low-budget/independent/student film, any project that dresses itself up in such a professional way (and DVD package) deserves to be reviewed in the same light as its bigger studio brothers. Luckily, Rex Steele was produced, if not by seasoned industry veterans, then by individuals with some degree of professional experience behind them. It isn’t strictly your first home movie we’re talking about here. Being independent meant that the guys were able to use their creative freedom with no memos or executive interference, and for the most part, Rex succeeds in spades.

The animation is good, more than serviceable, and instantly better than anything seen currently on TV: the result of time and effort rather than a large budget. The low amount of cash injected into the project shows only on a few shots where only the moving parts of a character have been animated. Not that this is like any old Hanna-Barbera show, or reminiscent of any cut-out animation shorts…movement is all fluidly achieved and the cost-cutting (some shots perhaps hold still for a beat too long) never gets in the way of the entertainment and certainly only resorts to such measures as most other “big” features would do the same thing. Woo’s direction is good, serving up a number of interesting angles and displaying an obvious feel for the film language of such stories.

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Timing is also not an issue for most of the film, with actions hitting the right beats every time. Ironically, it’s the CGI aspects that seem to do the filmmakers most injustice, with Rex and Penny’s descent through the rain being the most underwhelming moment in the film, and the one the feels the most “staged”, as if the plane were in fact a model held up by a single string. However, the final crash landing is more than rescued by imaginative lighting effects and editing, and it seems picky to complain about such things when one takes a step back and sees what has been achieved overall. CG objects easily meld in with the hand-drawn design style, which often resembles animated shorts of the film’s time setting.

Rex Steele: Nazi Smasher is a clever and very entertaining slice of throwback matinee excitement, and all the principals involved deserve to go on to greater things. Currently, Matt Peters is working for Cartoon Network on further seasons of Codename: Kids Next Door, while his partner Bill Presing continues to work as a storyboard artist at Pixar. As for director Alex Woo, well, it will be very interesting to see what comes out as the first project for George Lucas’ animation facility…Woo is now a story development artist there.

Is This Thing Loaded?

Again, since we’re primarily dealing with such a short length main feature, there’s a lot of space to be filled up on the disc…and filled up it has been, with the result that Rex Steele: Nazi Smasher contains one of the most in-depth looks at a production process on any disc (another one in the eye of most studios).

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As the Main Menu kicks off, we’re treated to more of the film’s newsreel styled images, complete with film scratches and grain. Going to Set Up will get you to the first of the bonuses: three full-length Audio Commentaries. Director Woo speaks on the first, explaining the reasons behind the choices and directions the film took during production. Woo’s inexperience as a speaker sneaks in a little, and he sounds a little nervous, but for the most part he comes across well and tries to talk with authority beyond his years, slipping into more confident speech as the track goes on. The audio quality isn’t the best though: reflecting the low-budget approach, this sounds as if it was taped on a home camcorder, though it clears up a short length in.

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Creators Peters and Presing pop up on tracks two and three respectively, explaining more about the technical tricks that they employed to bring Rex to life. Peters’ track digs deep into the minutiae of the production, such as the inspirations behind the fonts used in the newsreel footage, and is approached with typical writers’ zeal, as he dissects the characters and their relationships. Artist Presing’s slower, dryer track elaborates more on the art direction of the short, again explaining where the influences for the imagery came from and the techniques used to achieve them. Both tracks contain background noise again, and though Presing’s is easily the cleanest, it is for some reason placed in the hard left speaker. Nonetheless, a welcome addition, and nice to hear the boys obviously proud of their film.

Keeping with audio selections, and a great inclusion are two soundtrack options: Music Only and Effects Only. While the music is very much front of the mix in the actual film anyway, the real eye-opener (ear-opener?) here is the effects track, which is far more packed that one would expect on just running the movie itself. Again as flat out full as any major studio backed track, the editing here is very nicely done, and the track almost never lets up, revealing some interesting audio choices, which provide some additional laughs along the way.

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In the Special Features section proper, you’ll find the production detailed even more, with three Documentaries. Made Of Steel: The Making Of Nazi Smasher is a short six-minute piece that puts the three principal creators on camera in a series of talking-head shots that cover the bases in origination, design and final content. Not only does the featurette reveal how sickeningly young these guys look, but also includes peaks at the process: the comic book, pencil tests and animatics pop up throughout. Edited in a leisurely but never dawdling way, the clip ends with the hopes of the filmmakers and footage of Rex Steele winning its first award, “the first of many” as one off-camera voice correctly proclaims.

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3D Production is a two-and-a-half-minute look at the computer animation in the film. Artists David Kim and Andrew Coats explain that CG was relied upon during the shoot in order to create things that would have been too time consuming to achieve by hand given the conditions the film was made under. Another welcome piece, this doesn’t delve too deeply into how final looks were achieved, but does include copious amounts of test-render footage, which go a long way to revealing the steps taken by the crew. Quality is just about passable, the clips having been seemingly recorded using whatever camcorder mic was attached, though visually there’s some odd compression stuff going on in the interview shots as well as the animatics.

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Camcorder audio strikes again in the behind-the-scenes Music clip (lasting over six minutes), though visually this is top notch, with decent camera set-up and much footage of the Czech Philharmonic performing and recording the score. Composer/conductor Ryan Shore speaks about the importance of having a real orchestra play the score (as opposed to the cheaper route of a sampled library), and his intentions with the music in helping to tell the story. Perhaps the most satisfying and substantial of the “making of” material, this piece also includes footage of the demo sessions, snatches of those demos, first reactions from the creators on hearing their future themes, and the team going to Prague to record with the Philharmonic.

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In the Art Of Rex Steele, we find the First Animatic version of the film, presented complete. Best described as “animated storyboards” for those new to the term, this basically plays the film through, sans any audio, in a series of rough drawings that help the filmmakers edit and plot their film out before the time consuming and laborious animation process begins. Interestingly, this clip is shown in a wider 2.35:1 ratio, demonstrating the epic look that was being strived for. A Pencil Test version is next, this time matched up to the full soundtrack. Here you’ll find a mixture of storyboards, animatics and final renders, in a roughly 1.85 ratio; again an insightful look into the process only achievable due to the short length of the movie on the disc.

A 3D Progression Reel (2:15) shows off the CG virtual sets and props and the lighting and shadow render passes needed to make up the final composite, and is accompanied by a cool track that seems made up of samples from the film’s vocals and score (is this a Ryan Shore “fun day off” thing? There are no credits for it). Rounding out the section is Artwork itself, a grouping of five galleries that highlight concept and production drawings. Areas featured include Designs, Character Layouts, Storyboards and Backgrounds, with well around a couple of hundred images providing a good look at the development of Rex Steele.

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Finally, a Trailers section includes the teaser for Rex as appearing on the Monkeysuit Press comic website (presented at 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, which appears to suggest that the main feature has been “squished” slightly to achieve the slightly wider look of 2:1). There are also brief animated teasers (presented full-frame) for Bride Of Monkeysuit (are they allowed to use that Frankenstein music?), The Adventures Of Mia, and Rover – all titles published and available by the good folks promoting this very DVD. The disc’s sleeve also makes mention of some Easter Eggs, though I couldn’t spot any.

All in all, this is as comprehensive a package as is needed, and the extra footage is very welcome. I could have done with a little more knowledge of the hard work that went into Rex’s production…frankly the boys look like they have it pretty good, though it is in no doubt due to the slick way these materials have been cut together, to provide a document that feels a lot more smooth than the production must have really been like. A little more on Rex himself wouldn’t have gone amiss either, especially the design concept, which reminded me of Howard Gray’s Little Orphan Annie. Quality on the behind the scenes clips varies, but sound is an issue throughout…something that, if we’re being honest, should have been looked at during the shooting and/or “fixed in post” as it represents a serious mark against the overall desire to impress with a professional package.

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Looking past these problems and one can imagine that there must have been some tension involved and that wiring up for sound at some points must have been the last thing on anyone’s mind. DVD-wise, I also found video clips lasted longer than they needed to after fade-out by quite a few seconds…a capturing fault? However, the film itself looks and sounds great, and that’s the main thing. Everything else is indeed a bonus, and if it doesn’t hit the high marks set by studio fare, then one must check again that this is NOT studio fare, but an honest attempt by a group of guys to open up their production process, and that must be applauded.

Case Study:

Rounding things out in the initial pressings of the Rex Steele: Nazi Smasher limited edition set is a second disc: a 10-track Compact Disc of Ryan Shore’s exhilarating musical score. While the isolated track on the DVD itself is another bow in this package’s arrow, there’s nothing like revving up a soundtrack CD and letting the music speak for itself, and Shore’s score says as much about him as Woo’s picture says about the director. Performed by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, the recording is first-rate, mixed to perfection and emphasizes Shore’s big, brassy sound. The only thing that would have made it even better would have been a short interview feature on the composer (akin to the filmmaker’s commentary tracks and building on what he says in the behind the scenes Music clip), not only to bolster the running time, but to hear him comment more on his obvious influences and ambitions. A couple of demos, or the cool contemporary track used for the 3D Progression Reel on the DVD would have been fun too!

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The discs themselves come house in an attractive digi-pak, with a nice ‘n’ shiny, glossy finish. Simply designed, with disc specs on the back and huge blown up images of Rex on the inside, the package screams class and could only have done with an additional slip-case to house it in, being very much like Warners’ two-disc sets without the outer cardboard protection. A terrific approach, and one that increases the face value of the package unquestionably – great job!

Ink And Paint:

Being that Rex Steele: Nazi Smasher is a very short (ten minute) film, there’s every reason to expect an almost uncompressed transfer, and it delivers for sure! Though not encoded at the maximum 9.8mb rate (which would take up a ridiculous amount of disc space), the film looks great thanks to its animated nature and the fact that backgrounds are static for the most part in such films. Going for a wide cinematic look, Rex Steele appears to be presented in an aspect ratio of somewhere around 2:1, certainly between a theatrical 1.85 and 2.35, though not as narrow or wide as either.

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I did notice one anomaly, which puts into question the film’s frame rate…one frame is repeated ever five frames or so, meaning almost nothing to the animation, but introducing an odd fielded effect on the closing credits. The image is anamophically enhanced and my only minor gripe would be that such direct digital conversions (Rex Steele was mastered on HD format) give away the animation process a little by appearing “too clean”. Here, it’s the computer-aided ink and painting that feels a little “clinical”, though the sometimes thick black character outlines can be overlooked, bringing to the piece the feel of the comic book come to life. In all other respects, this is a top-notch image.

Scratch Tracks:

Keeping up the professional approach, the Rex Steele soundtrack has been Dolby Digitally mixed and encoded here, providing a rich sound (mostly down to the rousing score). Vocals are extremely clear and spot effects placed nicely in the mix, and reproduced cleanly. Bass is fun, kicking in a couple of times, though a little more on Rex’s smacks might have given them even more wallop! With the terrific picture, there’s no reason this little short shouldn’t become a big show off for your systems.

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Final Cut:

Aping the comic book-styled serials and providing a great deal of enjoyment, Rex Steele feels very much a part of the retro-period camp that Boy’s Own romps such as Indiana Jones, The Rocketeer, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow belong to. While I wouldn’t necessarily say this was a kid’s film, there’s nothing in it other than good old-fashioned large breasted sirens and a square jawed hero smashing up the villains that would cause any offence. At heart it’s a geek movie, made in the style of those old-school serial adventures but with 21st Century ideals, and in some ways a visual companion piece to Atlantis: The Lost Empire. I won’t even attempt to go into the they’re-not-even-there comparisons with Rex’s role in the world today, as it’s best to take him – and his short film – at face value, in which case this Nazi Smasher certainly deserves a spot on your shelf. Take that!

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

steele18.jpg MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD
SPECIAL ORDER! BUY REX STEELE: NAZI SMASHER
EXCLUSIVELY FROM MONKEYSUIT PRESS

 

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