Storytelling, VFX and the Emotional Medium of Movies
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Stephen Menick : Storytelling, VFX and the Emotional Medium of Movies
I loved the girl's hair in Brave. It was red, wild and beautiful. The Pixar animators worked years to perfect it. They wrote the software and labored by hand and factored in gravity and bounce and stickiness and they made it all wonderful. No question – Brave is a miracle of animation.
Yes, but is it Kong?
It's been 80 years since Hollywood's tallest darkest leading man sent New Yorkers running for their lives. He smashed the El, climbed to the top of the Empire State Building and snatched an airplane out of the sky. His fur kept twitching because the animators had their hands all over him, resetting him 24 times per movie second. He was a puppet, but audiences loved him anyway.
They still love him. On Rotten Tomatoes he's as fresh as they come – 98% at last count – not bad for a guy once written off as just a lot of special effects. "Neither the story nor the cast gains more than secondary importance," Variety wrote in 1933. "Technical aspects are always on top."
I think Variety was wrong. Kong was special – very special. It wasn't the effects and it wasn't the cast (though Fay Wray got a clear shot at immortality). It was the story. The story of a big lug with a soft spot a mile wide. Of a king who loses his kingdom and his life because he falls for a pretty little thing – falls long before he tumbles to his death in Manhattan.
The tale turns on its axis on the other island, the one lost in the southern latitudes of the Indian Ocean. The ship's mate, who's got his own crush on the girl, steals her from under Kong's nose and runs her back to the native village behind the big wall. Kong follows, marching toward his doom – into the captivating arms of those little creatures who have inherited the earth. Kong's a dinosaur. He just doesn't know it yet. It doesn't hit him until he's on top of the world. We can see it in his little rubber face.
If only he'd done nothing, he'd still be king. The natives would have given him another girl. Maybe two girls, to make up for the misunderstanding over the blonde.
But he just has to go out on a limb.
It's what every strong story wants. Giant gorilla or budding crime boss, you've got to go out on a limb. Michael Corleone comes back from the war a decorated veteran. His choice of girlfriend – the very un-Italian Diane Keaton – makes it clear that he's ready to write his ticket out of his father's world. Michael loves his family but not the evil they do. They're a drag on his ambitions and they threaten his sense of his own legitimacy in the land of his birth. Going the way of the family means taking a step back.
Michael Corleone (portrayed by Al Pacino) in The Godfather
Then comes the attempt on the Don's life, and Michael, who has so much to lose, lets it go, all of it, and it's full speed ahead to the tragedy of a man whose struggle to protect his family costs him his family – and more.
Kong and The Godfather are built to last. Something big – life, soul, honor – is at stake. The central character has at least one compelling reason not to act but acts anyway, in the face of resistance. The gears grate and grind and the transformation begins.
Chinatown (1974) with Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway
One more. Chinatown. A Los Angeles detective takes what looks like a routine case. It leads him him first where the power brokers live, high up, with a view of corruption on a breathtaking scale. He pushes on, into some of the darkest places in the heart. He's no fool. He's been there before – he's been to Chinatown, not so much a part of town but the place where the sidewalk ends, where you can't see in the dark and the best intentions go bad. So he really should know better. But he acts anyway.
The T-rex roared and dinosaurs ruled the earth all of 20 years ago, and I'm still not sure whether CGI has been the best or the worst thing to happen to the movies. The beasts of Jurassic Park have given way to whole cities, dreamscapes, oceans of painted pixels. A screenful of CGI is like a banana split with three flavors of ice cream, Reddi-wip®, chocolate syrup, nuts, sprinkles and a cherry. Just looking at it makes my stomach turn.
The makers of these marvels are talented and driven people. They're Chuck Yeagers, forever pushing the envelope. Meanwhile the writers and directors and producers and producer-stars chase down movie ideas unthinkable before CGI. Problem is, effects aren't "special" anymore. Jurassic Park gave us the kind of eye-popping jaw-dropping experience that happens maybe once in a generation. But our CGI-besotted filmmakers keep trying to take us back. They're like addicts trying to recapture that first high. When does an addiction become a problem? When it takes its toll on the important things – job, spouse, kids. Or story.
It's a problem, but it's big Hollywood's problem. For now at least, shoestring filmmakers can't afford CGI. They have a different problem, and it's part of why the passing of the photochemical process has made filmmakers' lives more complicated.
Directing today, you still need to know what you want and know your lenses. Maybe you can't afford CGI, but you've got a killer digital camera. Or, if you care to wait a couple of months, the next killer digital camera – the next door down the hall to another dimension – a tricky dimension – a dimension not only of sight and sound but of millions of ones and zeroes arrayed in frame rates and bitrates and flavors and formats and codecs and compressions and much else besides, accessed through a multi-layered touch menu that can keep your fingers busy and your brain engaged even longer. Why would you go there to play? Because you're a director and you want control.
I see it in young filmmakers. They grew up in the digital age and they're comfortable with the new medium and they get sucked into the twilight zone in search of the perfect look – and the story's weak. They want to be like Kubrick, but they forget that Kubrick served a ten-year apprenticeship as a still photographer; that the technology wasn't moving like a runaway train like today; and that, despite his drive to get things just the way he saw them in his mind, Kubrick always put first things first. As he said to film writer Michel Ciment, "The visual part of filmmaking has always come easiest to me, and that is why I am careful to subordinate it to the story and performance."
Story's always the hardest thing. If it's enough to keep the Kubricks scratching their heads, then the rest of us, the non-geniuses, would do well to clear our modest brainspace of everything else. If we're lucky, we've got a DP working like an optometrist, asking us which setting, which calibration matches our vision: A, B or C (or half the alphabet, if that's what it takes). We let the DP be a DP and we stop worrying about the visuals and we fixate on what we want the audience to feel and follow in the story.
We try to create a character like Kong or Michael Corleone or Jake Gittes. Somebody with something coiled up inside and it's just waiting to get out. The audience may not be aware of it at first. Michael starts off as the quiet kid brother. Jake looks like just another jaded private eye. Even Kong's been happy with whatever the natives have put on his plate – until they serve him the blonde. And then our guy or girl gets provoked, and the rest is story.
Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard share a poignant moment as the train prepares to depart in 1945's Brief Encounter.
One way or another, there needs to be an awakening. Brave didn't have it. We never see the moment when the wild redhead takes life's bait and discovers – reveals – how wild she really is. We already know it. She's her hair. It's as big in the first scene as in the last. She doesn't transform. I wish her makers had put at least as much effort into the story as into the hair.
CGI is a great tool – but use it for stuff you don't want me to look at, the way David Fincher used it in Zodiac. The new digital looks are exquisite – but movies aren't a visual medium. They're an emotional medium.
Give me characters with an imbalance, something off-kilter, some vulnerability that pushes them to be true to themselves and start breaking bad. Give me Walter White, the Dr. Jekyll who's handed 100 chances to quit being Mr. Hyde. Give me the happily married woman who knows she should stop running to those brief encounters with Trevor Howard in the train station. Give me the Army captain who if he wasn't so crazy would turn the boat around and head back down the river – but he won't because he's got to meet Kurtz.
And if you can't give me new friends like these, I'll revisit the old ones. I'm happy to curl up again with Apocalypse Now. Every helicopter is real.
Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now.
Stephen Menick is a three-time Emmy-nominated writer, producer and director.
More of his work is here: http://vimeo.com/menicktv.