Film

Know Your Audience

For anyone who has attended a production meeting for a new film idea, there are always some common questions that come up. Queries about the script, props, lighting, sound and budget are going to be bandied about back and forth ad nauseam till the film is shot and in the can. As a person who’s primarily familiar with working with indie filmmakers in a much smaller market, one question that rarely comes up is “To whom are we making this for?” This is one aspect of filmmaking that I feel early filmmakers and indie directors working in small markets don’t seem to bother with too much. They often work to get the film shot and edited and hope whoever is interested shows up, but this is not how Hollywood or successful indie filmmakers see it.

You’ve probably heard a million stories about how Hollywood will green-light a film before even a single line of dialogue is ever written. To those of us that see film as an art form, these types of stories paint Hollywood as an industry solely interested in making money. To all you idealistic artists out there, you’re 100% correct; Hollywood’s main priority is raking in millions regardless of the quality of their product. This is why every film student talks shit about Michael Bay while driving their parents’ cars to the local art house theater, and he’s speeding to Hugh Hefner’s mansion in a McLaren. Still, just because a company or entity’s mission might be the absolute opposite of your own, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t emulate the things they do right, and one thing they’re damn good at is knowing who to target their films to.

"I spent more money on my hair than you did on your film. Tell me again how much TMNT sucked." Photo by kaje_yomama / CC 2.0

“I spent more money on my hair than you did on your film. Tell me again how much TMNT sucked.”
Photo by kaje_yomama / CC 2.0

Now, I’m not saying you should necessarily read the box office trends this year and just copy whatever’s popular. You be you. Make the film you want to make, but at least ask yourself who you’re making this film for. Many of you have already heard the term “target audience” and probably just assume they’re out there somewhere, but it’s more than that. It’s important that you know the type of film you’re making, and more importantly, find out who likes that type of film. Oh, you’re making a zombie film? Try promoting at a local showing of Dawn of The Dead. This seems obvious, but as I said earlier rarely have I been to a production meeting where someone asked, “Who are we targeting this film to?”

A lot of early filmmakers treat the search for their audience like a game of Battleship. Once they’re done with the film, they begin to haphazardly send it out to whatever festival comes to mind till they get sick of spending their paychecks on countless rejection letters. The film is then shelved, but hey, at least they get to put it on their IMDB page.

"E4? MIss! Here's your rejection letter from Tribeca!" Photo by jking89 / CC 2.0

“E4?
MIss! Here’s your rejection letter from Tribeca!”
Photo by jking89 / CC 2.0

This is the result of not having a plan of attack and not taking the time to select the type of venues that will produce the most exposure in the long run. There are literally hundreds of film festivals in the country. Rather than sending them out to the closest ones or the ones you think will be easy to get into, try sending them to the festivals you know your audience will be at. Is it a comedy? Instead of spending $30 on the submission fee to your in-state film festival, why not try submitting to a festival like the Laugh Out Loud Short Film Fest. Is it a sci-fi? Many comic conventions now have their very own film competitions for their fans. It’s important to show your film to the type of people who will enjoy it and keep talking about it. This works to become a word of mouth marketing strategy, which is more successful now than it’s ever been, what with the popularity of social media.

It doesn’t take too much effort to find your audience. If you enjoy the type of films you make, they’re probably going to be at a lot of the venues you wish you could go to. A quick glance at local film showings or a simple Google search for festivals that specialize in your type of film can introduce you to the type of people who will keep talking about your film. To sum it up, make a plan and do some research. Don’t leave anything up to chance.

Film Rant: You Can’t Not Give Boyhood an Oscar

Let me preface this post by saying I have not seen Boyhood yet. Believe me, I plan to, but much like 12 Years a Slave (another film I have yet to watch despite it showing up on cable weeks ago), it just seems like one of those films that’s importance demands more than a casual watch, but a thorough examination. Less a film and more of an event. Still, I’ve always liked Richard Linklater as he came from the same group of indie filmmakers such as Tarantino, Rodriguez and Smith who dominated the festival circuit and pretty much defined my generation. As an admirer I have always followed his career and was well aware of the scope of Boyhood.

As I saw the nominees for the Golden Globes, I tell my girlfriend that Boyhood is a shoo-in for best dramatic picture. Never missing an opportunity to catch me with my foot in my mouth, she states the obvious, “You haven’t even seen the film!” to which I respond, “I don’t need to see it. It wins on principle alone.”

Last weekend I was proven correct, and despite admittedly not knowing what the hell I’m taking about most of the time, I’m chalking this up as a win.

As many of you already know, Boyhood took 12 years to make. This was not only a commitment for Linklater, but the entire cast as well, including 7-year-old Ellar Coltrane and Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei. Not only that, but Linklater apparently also had a contingency plan in place in the case of his unforeseeable demise during shooting. Ethan Hawke would take over as director in payment for all the films Linklater has cast him in, including Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight and what I assume will be the finale, After Midnight: The JJ Cale Story.

In my opinion, the sheer scope of this film alone should further garner it an Oscar win. Even if it doesn’t hold a candle to the other nominees (which doesn’t appear to be the case at all), the Academy needs to create a one time only award for Best Use of Elbow Grease In A Motion Picture or Most Creative Use For Adolescence for Ellar Coltrane.

Now this is not to say that Boyhood is the only film that has taken a quarter of a lifetime to make. Films such as The Manson Family and Tiefland took 15 and 21 years respectively to come to theaters. Not to mention the animated film, The Thief and The Cobbler, that ended up taking a whopping 28 years before it reached completion. But as where those films’ long production times were often a result of perfectly understandable reasons such as creative conflicts, lack of financing or getting your ass kicked by the Allies, Boyhood is unique in that Linklater and the cast knew full well what they were getting themselves into. The 12-year production time is not a result of unforeseen obstacles, but the very essence of the film. This is not only a momentous decision on behalf of Linklater, but the cast as well.

I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Linklater: Hey Patricia, what are you doing for the next 12 years?

Arquette: Shooting Medium most likely, people love that show! But I got some extra time on my hands.

Linklater: What about you, Jake Weber?

Weber: Do I have to cut my hair?

Linklater: Probably.

Weber: There’s only one man I’ll cut my mop top for and that’s Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Linklater: We don’t have him.

Weber: Well, looks like someone’s casting Ethan Hawke again.

That’s my two cents and I’m sticking to it, until such time when I finally see all the other Oscar nominees, to which my next post might be entitled “Film Rerant: You Can’t Not Not Not Give Whiplash an Oscar”.

Indie Intros: Sam Raimi’s Within the Woods

Before The Evil Dead, there was “Within the Woods”. “Within the Woods” isn’t exactly a prequel to The Evil Dead franchise in terms of story, but rather in terms of style. Many of the motifs common in Raimi’s later works are present in this film, including his love of POV shots, his clear hatred for appendages and of course Bruce Campbell. I’ll warn you ahead of time, the only copy I could find on the Internet looks like it was filmed off a VHS that, similar to the Necronomicon, dates back to ancient Sumer. Sorry everyone, but until Raimi decides to release his Blu-Ray remaster of “Within the Woods” we’re stuck with this. On the plus side, the severe tracking problems kind of add to the eeriness.

The plot of “Within the Woods” is almost exactly the same as The Evil Dead. A group of kids decide to stay the night in a creepy cabin for no other reason than cabins can be stayed in. Where it differs from The Evil Dead is that instead of an ancient book causing all the trouble we get an Indian burial ground, because as movies will have us believe, Native Americans love to plague modern day white kids with posthumous curses. As the kids begin to poke around, people die, come back to life and begin killing to add to their ranks.

Upon watching “Within the Woods”, you’ll immediately begin to pick up on common Raimiesque film techniques. For starters, the famous, fast-paced POV “Raimi-cam” chase shot is in full effect here. Not only would Raimi reuse this shot famously in the Evil Dead series, but also its popularity would be further pointed to in other directors’ works. Perhaps this is due to “Within the Woods” low budget, but the audio techniques from Evil Dead 1 and 2 also seem present here. Like the scene in Evil Dead 2 where Ash loses his mind and the cabin becomes a Pee Wee’s Playhouse of Horrors, Raimi’s Foley work in “Within the Woods” is loud and has all the subtlety of a jack hammer, with loud grinding sounds that overpower any ambient noise.

“Within the Woods” was made for a paltry $1,600, which isn’t bad for half-hour short. It was also filmed on 8mm, which Raimi paid to have blown up to 35mm for theater showings, which might also explain the grainy look on YouTube.

Another thing to note is that “Within the Woods” marks the first pairing of Robert Tapert and Sam Raimi. The two would go on to produce a number of successful film and TV projects like The Darkman series, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. Tapert would also go on to produce many other popular films such as The Grudge, 30 Days of Night, and arguably Jean Claude Van Damme’s best film, Timecop.

My Five Favorite Indie Films of 2014

The Skeleton Twins

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When The Skeleton Twins was first announced, I knew it was the type of film I just had to see. I’ve already written about how I feel this new era of comedians are knocking it out of the park in their indie film roles. Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader are probably the best thing to come out SNL’s last generation of comedians, so I didn’t see how this film could disappoint. Thankfully I was right.

The Skeleton Twins manages to be light-hearted yet emotion heavy at he same time. Both Wiig and Hader manage to bring levity to roles that also demand them to be deeply troubled. What results is a truly entertaining film that also manages to tackle serious themes like depression and sexual abuse.

The film is about two twins (go figure) whose crippling depression has them feeling trapped. Both attempt to seek happiness in what they believe are ideal relationships with others. The film is heavy on irony as the two estranged twins must connect again to heal, but are the most critical of each others’ plights.

 

Frank

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Frank is not only a fantastic film, but also has one of the best performances of all time from an actor in full headgear.

Frank is a film about a mysterious bandleader who refuses to be seen unless he is wearing a giant plastic head. Despite the lack of facial expressions, Michael Fassbender still manages to produce one of the best performances of the year in my opinion.

At face value, Frank seems to be one of those indie films that are heavy on the quirk. But unlike films from Wes Anderson or Tim Burton, Frank’s quirkiness doesn’t come off as affected. In fact, only the title character and his band really ever come off as eccentric. The rest of the world around along with the people they encounter couldn’t be any more average.

Underneath the mask, Frank is a film that explores the origins of creativity; asking the audience if true talent is learned or inherent within a select few lucky individuals.

 

Snowpiercer

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Snowpiercer is one of those films that seemed misleading based on the poster. It was easy to assume that this film was going to be a big budget action film. Chris Evans just came off the success of Captain America: Winter Soldier and the poster, an image of Evans looking all heroic-like in a top coat and holding an axe, looked like it was your common action fare. Even the title of the film, Snowpiercer, hints to images of a warrior crashing through an iceberg armed only with a spear.

The truth is, Snowpiercer was probably one of the most original sci-fi concepts since The Matrix. In it, Evans plays a passenger on an eternally running locomotive which happens to be the last safe haven for humanity in a world torn apart by climate change. The passengers have been placed into an oppressive caste system where the stowaways are forced into barely livable conditions, constantly under surveillance, while the rest of the passengers are given the four star treatment. Evans is a member of this lowest caste and leads a rebellion to infiltrate the front of the train.

Snowpiecer plays like the combination of a George Orwell novel and a twisted version of Thomas the Tank Engine. The cinematography is very similar films like 12 Monkeys and The City of Lost Children. But unlike those other films set in apocalyptic settings, Snowpiercer combines a tongue in cheek aspects to its dark atmosphere. For instance, Tilda Swindon fantastically plays a cold-hearted official with such over the top oppressive idealism its hard to take the film too seriously.

 

Obvious Child

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It was tough for me to decide whether this or my next choice would take the number one spot.

Obvious Child takes a modern and honest look at abortion, one that differs from how film has dealt with the subject in the past. Obvious Child discusses the difficulties faced with choosing to have an abortion (eg. how to break it to your parents, whether to discuss it with a one night stand, etc.) rather than assume every woman becomes riddled with guilt or must face huge social backlash.

I’ve already gushed on Jenny Slate in the past and I suppose there’s no reason to stop now. Although Obvious Child is a rom-com at heart, she brings a complexity that you rarely see from a main character within the genre. I’ve always felt that the conflicts in most rom-coms oftentimes feel fabricated, but Slate’s character tackles her problems in an honest way that I feel many can relate to.

 

The Babadook

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The Babadook takes top prize as my favorite indie film of 2014. The plot isn’t that different from your common family tormented by a supernatural force, but how it uses it to address issues of depression and resentment is truly unique.

The Babadook is a film out of Australia, I suppose you could put his in the foreign film category, but the filmmakers went out of their way to make the suburbs that the film takes place in look like Anywhereville. No Koalas or Kangaroos. Even some of the characters in the film lack Aussie accents.

The cinematography and special effects are purposely lo-fi but well done, giving the film a look that can only be described as an incredibly dark version of Maurice Sendak children’s book. The film is also similar to one of my favorite films of this year, Oculus, in that it doesn’t rely on gore or jump out of your seat effects, but true suspense to produce scares much like The Shining did years ago.

If you’re a fan of horror, you should love The Babadook for its fresh and smart take on the classic haunted house film.

 

Honorable Mention:

 

Tusk

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This almost got an honorable mention because truthfully I found it to be a hard watch. I’ve never been a huge fan of horror films like Human Centipede that are heavy on the mutilation factor, but I feel I had to include Tusk because I believe Kevin Smith did something truly remarkable in marketing the film. It’s my personal belief that filmmaking doesn’t end with the final cut. In my opinion, the marketing of a film is just as important as shooting or editing. If a filmmaker truly has something he wishes to share with the world, then he’s not going to get very far if he doesn’t have an audience.

Smith got the idea from an ad he found and discussed on one of his podcasts. From there he took to social media and marketed the shit out of Tusk, first starting by asking his audience if Tusk was something they even had an interest in seeing by voting on Twitter. Rather than spending money on more traditional methods of marketing, he trusted his audience to spread the word over social media. Furthermore, the ad he originally got the idea from turned out to be a hoax. As a result, Smith gave the hoaxer an Associate Producer credit for giving him the idea.

In the end, Tusk is a film that was given life from an audience clamoring to see a horror film from the director that brought you Chasing Amy and Clerks. At an estimated $3 million budget, the film wasn’t exactly a success, credit has to be given to Smith for taking to social media and marketing the film from start to finish. Whether you like the film or not, Smith’s trust in his audience allowed him to make the film he wanted without any outside influence. I don’t know if you can get any more independent than that.

Spotlight on Shorts: Alma

Christmas time is only a day away and to close out my month of holiday themed short films I’ve decided to save the best for last. So far we’ve seen a holiday themed zombie apocalypse, killer Christmas trees and a plot to kill Santa Claus, but “Alma”, a 2009 Best Animation winner at the LA Shorts Fest, is probably the darkest of them all. The best way I can describe the film is it’s the result of what happens when you combine the feel of Toy Story with the plot of Child’s Play.

If you noticed that “Alma” looks and feels a lot like a Pixar film, you’re not mistaken. The director Rodrigo Blaas was an animator for the Oscar winning powerhouse and worked on such films as Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and WallŸ⋅E.

Much like the opening scene in Up, “Alma” contains no dialogue. The entire story is told visually. You might also notice that the score of the film is reminiscent of many Pixar films such as Ratatouille, but unlike that film the music belies the dark nature of the film.

In it a little girl by the name of Alma is happily skipping through the snow when she comes upon a doll the bears a striking similarity to her. Her curiosity gets the better of her and she enters the toyshop to investigate.

Unlike “Treevenge” or “Preferably Blue“, “Alma” doesn’t rely on gore or adult subject matter to garner its Dark Fantasy label. In fact, “Alma” is relatively kid friendly; it’s simply the implications of what the film ultimately portrays that will probably scare the piss out of your children. It’s like the Joe Camel of holiday shorts; visually appealing to kids but harboring a dark, dark secret.

Filmmakers might be able to take a page out of “Alma” in terms of how dark subject matter can be presented in many different ways. The film proves that unlike films such as A Nightmare Before Christmas, dark fantasy doesn’t always have to rely on death or the macabre to get the message through. Instead, “Alma” uses plot devices more akin to an episode of The Twilight Zone than a Tim Burton film.

I hope you all have enjoyed this my picks this year for holiday themed shorts. Hopefully, I’ll be able to find a slew of others to share with you next year. I’ll be taking a little break for the holidays, but stop by next week where I plan to pick my five favorite indie films of the year. Also, plan on seeing another Focus on Filmmakers early in January where I’ll be interviewing another local talent. Happy Holidays everyone!

Spotlight on Shorts: Preferably Blue

“Preferably Blue” is a nice little animated short out of New Zealand and is directed by Alan Dickson. It’s a dark comedy that is told in the same vein as “Twas a Night Before Christmas”. In it the Easter Bunny has hit rock bottom. Things are so bad that he’s taken to drinking and is dependent on anti-depressants. He comes to the realization that the cause of his depression is stems from children’s love of Christmas over Easter. This turns the bunny into a Scrooge of sorts and he devises a plot to kill Santa Clause and take his magical sack. What results is an adult version of How The Grinch Stole Christmas.

“Preferably Blue” manages to just toe the line between adult humor and children’s fairy tale just enough to keep both intact without corrupting the other. I’m not saying that you should gather the kids around the computer screen and roast chestnuts to it, but those of you that grew up with the old Rankin/Bass TV specials. Although it’s CG animated, you will immediately see where “Preferably Blue’s” inspirations come from. “Preferably Blue” manages to keep of some of the innocence intact by delivering a lot of its humor through double entendre. After a while of viewing the film, you can’t help but begin to laugh at lines like “Santa’s sack”. Sure, you may think the humor is somewhat sophomoric, but get too clever and you begin to lose the childish magic commonly associated with Christmas tales. Also, by keeping it light-hearted, it allows the audience member not to take darker themes like murder and loss too seriously.

Much like The Grinch, “Preferably Blue” stays true to the message of so many Christmas tales, that the holidays are a time for sharing, forgiveness and helping one’s neighbor. It is a set of beliefs so common, especially in Western Culture, it’s impossible to imagine a holiday story that doesn’t end by celebrating these festive principles. Even films like Bad Santa end with the anti-hero ultimately surrendering to lure of the Christmas Spirit. This seems to be the one unifying trait that separates holiday movies from all the rest. Although predictable, it’s become a standard, like weddings at the end of a Shakespearean comedy. This is not a criticism of holiday movies by any means. Holiday movies distinguish themselves from other cinematic fare in another important way; they’re rarely viewed outside of the holidays. With that in mind, Christmas and other holiday movies seem to play a very important role in moviegoers lives, to get them to share in the Holiday spirit.

Kill This Trope

Whether you come from a film or literature background, the word “trope” probably has two different meanings. In Literature it’s describes the use of figurative language for artistic effect. This differs from how the word is defined in regards to film and video games. In visual arts it’s more regarded as an overused plot device. For the uses of this blog we’ll be dealing with the latter and discuss one trope in particular that irks me.

The trope I’m talking about involves a character who makes an entrance from off screen, then proceeds to join the middle of a conversation without missing a beat. It’s basically the Stealth Hi/Bye trope, but rather than characters starting a dialogue, they’re entering one. In practice it’s meant to introduce new characters into a conversation without looking like a group of people are just huddled in room like normal people converse. As a result, the character enters into the conversation, completely out of context, giving the impression they are imbued with either superhuman hearing or psychic abilities. It is often used in TV and film where the dialogue is fast paced and plentiful. Common genres are police, courtroom, political and newsroom dramas.

One of my favorite TV shows and frequent perpetrator of this trope is Law and Order: SVU. On any given Wednesday on NBC or every 15 minutes on USA, you can find a group of detectives discussing the latest horrible crime only to have Ice-T or BD Wong barge in to complete one of Olivia’s sentences.

Let’s look at an example:

See that? See how Dr. Huang just walked into the conversation to put his two cents in? Huang is nowhere in the room when the scene starts. Furthermore watch how Detective Stabler and Tutuola’s heads turn in unison to acknowledge Huang’s entrance. Sure it’s possible it’s the biggest case they’re handling that day and thus Huang assumes that’s what they’d be talking about. Still, how convenient is it that he enters at the precise moment his contribution is needed to the discussion? More likely it appears he just likes camping out behind the projection screen with all the hideous murders on it, maybe to get him into full on crime solving mode.

This trope is also sometimes used in conjunction with the popular Walk and Talk trope.

Here we see the introduction of Detective Carisi for the first time on SVU:

Keep in mind no one has ever seen this guy before. Proper decorum would suggest an individual in this scenario would open with an introduction like, “Hi, Dominick Carisi, I’m your new partner” or really anything other than bulldozing your way into a conversation to make a first impression. Of course, Olivia takes his introduction with the type of grace and crack deductive reasoning she’s known for, as where most people would have asked, “Who the fuck are you and where did you come from?” Which leads to another question, was he just posting off to the side waiting for his new partner to show up? Was he hiding around the corner? This is the Special Victims Unit. You can’t just creep around a corner waiting to jump out. They put these types of assholes behind bars every week.

Another guy who loves this trope is Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is known for The West Wing, HBO’s The Newsroom, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Social Network. All of his work is known for its spitfire dialogue and constant foot traffic.

Here’s an example of how Sorkin employs this trope:

How could Josh have possibly known what they were talking about unless he was eavesdropping around the corner? Was the urge to correct Charlie’s slight numerical error so great that he was forced to reveal himself, all the while trying desperately to make it look as casual as possible?

This trope along with the Walk and Talk was apparently so common on The West Wing it was parodied by the actual cast in a commercial for nonpartisan voting. Watch as Mary McCormack not only walks into conversations, but manages to use her Spider Sense to catch a ball in midair:

TV is not the only culprit. Film uses this trope on occasion here’s an example from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises:

Seriously, where is Bane coming from, around the corner? Unless there are multiple open entrances to this room, Bane had to be just waiting for him. Was he just kneeling behind that archway hanging around patiently while playing Angry Birds on silent? If so, not only was he waiting for Daggett to show, but also for the perfect opening for a cool looking entrance. Because Gotham ain’t worth taking over if you don’t look badass while doing it.

Indie Intros: Robert Rodriguez’s Bedhead

Love him or hate him, Robert Rodriguez is on of the biggest names associated with guerilla filmmaking, a form of independent filmmaking that uses low budgets, small crews and stolen locations to get the best out of production value while still keeping cost extremely low. His book Rebel Without a Crew is an interesting read for any indie filmmaker. It recounts the making of his ultra-low budget feature El Mariachi, where Rodriguez goes as far as to sell his body to science to finance the film. From the mid nineties to early 2000’s, there was a surge of guerilla filmmakers like Rodriguez. Kevin Smith, John Linklater and Quentin Tarantino not only were getting features made for thousands of dollars, but also found the films getting picked up by major studios and winning big at film festivals.

Rodriguez’s short film “Bedhead” was made in 1990 and if you watch closely you will see common themes that he would come to revisit in later films. It tells the tale of a girl who gets in a fight with her older brother and as a result gains super powers due to a small case of head trauma.

From the opening credits, we begin to see some trademarks that would define Rodriguez’s career. I’ve already discussed Rodriguez’s love for comics before and we see that reflected in the film’s introduction.

Although Rodriguez is probably best know for films like Sin City, Machete and From Dusk Till Dawn, he is also the guy responsible for the popular Spy Kids franchise. In fact, despite his penchant for directing highly stylized, violent action movies, his highest grossing films come from his work with children. “Bedhead” foreshadows Rodriguez’s penchant for making children’s films like Spy Kids and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl as well as the many familial themes those films explore.

Another common characteristic of Robert Rodriguez films is his exploration of Mexican and Mexican-American cultural themes. Films like Machete and Once Upon a Time in Mexico borrow heavily from classic Mexploitation films, where films like Spy Kids portray the life a common Latin-American family with extraordinary abilities. “Bedhead” has shades of the latter, depicting a sibling rivalry within a Latin-American family unit.

Finally, there are a few homages to other filmmakers that can be found in “Bedhead”. It’s pretty clear that Rodriguez borrowed heavily from Sam Raimi and his Evil Dead films. The famous high-speed POV tracking shot from The Evil Dead can be seen in “Bedhead” along with Lock and Load montages popular in many of Raimi’s films as well as the Rambo franchise.

“Bedhead” is the type of short I like to see from famous visionary directors like Rodriguez. The type that someone can watch and immediately recognize common themes that will come to define a director’s more iconic films. Shorts like these show how an amateur director can start with an idea and then expand upon it later in life.

Film and Video Games: What’s The Disconnect?

If you’re a gamer, you’re probably just as cynical as I am when you hear about the next video game based movie on the horizon. It almost seems a rule of thumb that films adapted from video games are guaranteed to disappoint. Even successful franchises like the Resident Evil series, which is now working on its sixth installment, aren’t exactly considered film gold. Yet, this doesn’t seem to slow Hollywood down as over thirty new titles are rumored to be currently in the works. So what is it about video games and film that seem so incompatible?

Structure of Video Games vs. Film, Literature and Theater

One thing that film has in common with literature and theater is that the story structure is relatively the same. All three often follow a Freytag’s Pyramid structure. Certainly this is not the always case, all three mediums play with this structure and break rules from time to time, but for the most part, this structure of storytelling is present in the vast majority of books, plays and films we consume day to day. This makes adapting a novel or play to the silver screen easier, as you pretty much already have a blueprint to get from point A to B. The rest is simply editing out what you don’t want or adding your own artistic voice to original material.
Video games, on the other hand, particularly older ones, don’t follow this style of storytelling. In early games like Pacman, very little was explained in terms of backstory. Officially, all that’s really known about Pacman is he’s really hungry guy with no appendages, being chased by angry undead. It’s essentially what would happen if you dropped Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life into the zombie apocalypse. There are some comical cutscenes for the player to watch, but they don’t really reveal anything new to the player in terms of story. Furthermore, Pacman has no end, so what your left with is really just a situation with characters.

Later, games like Donkey Kong would begin to establish more of a narrative. The moment you play the first level it’s apparent that a giant ape with unlimited barrels and fireballs for friends has kidnapped your girlfriend. Unlike Pacman, Donkey Kong has an ending where our hero tears down the very structure of the level, causing the great ape to crack his head open. He is reunited with his girlfriend and the two look lovingly at one another while Donkey Kong exhibits the first signs of severe, irreversible brain damage.

Today’s games posses far more plot and story structure than their predecessors. Games like Farcry and The Last of Us, deal with complicated issues like revenge and the human condition. Many of their cutscenes take a page from cinema, allowing characters to express their feelings and motivations even though the player is actively controlling them.

Control Issues 

Despite the amount of progress video games have made in the storytelling department, for the most part video games are still fundamentally goal based, requiring the player to perform a set of menial tasks to drive the story forward. Even games like Gone Home, which toe the line between film and gaming, require the player to actively search for clues to tell the narrative. This affects the structure of the story in that the player decides how they want to progress. Gamers familiar with the Grand Theft Auto series are familiar with this, as it’s not uncommon to devote 20+ hours to side missions before moving on to the main storyline. Simply put, if story structure in film, literature and theater is meant to be a rollercoaster ride, video games put you in the seat of a formula one car.

Zoom, Zoom... Photo by  Julien Reboulet / CC 2.0

Zoom, Zoom…
Photo by Julien Reboulet / CC 2.0

This poses a problem when trying to adapt a game to the screen. Since the transfer from video game to film requires the viewer lose control of the character, how can you stay faithful to original source material that relies on player/character interaction to tell the story?

The Loss in Translation

People look forward to film adaptations of literature and theater because we tend to gain something from the transfer. Theater requires a certain level of distance between the viewer and the actors. Camera tricks such as close ups and point of view shots bring audience members closer, giving them an almost god-like view of the action. In literature, we give up the use of imagination, but film puts the senses of sight and sound into play that can’t fully be expressed through the written word.

Video games, particularly modern ones, interact with most of our senses, but other than maybe getting to see our favorite movie stars portray the roles, we really lose a lot when we give up the control to the actor. The desire for control is probably best illustrated by the much hated “Noisy audience member”. You know, the person who insists on directing the clueless camp counselor not to enter that cabin because we all know Jason is lurking in the shadows with a machete. Although irritating, it perfectly illustrates people’s desire for control.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that it’s impossible to make a good movie based off a video game. Still, I do believe filmmakers should attempt to make the story their own and not try and recreate certain moments from games that don’t translate well. Putting a POV shot in the Doom movie isn’t going to trick anyone into thinking they’re reliving the game any more than putting pictures in a Harry Potter novel will make someone think they’re reading in IMAX. Choices like this only serve as mindless fan service. I can only hope that cinematically inspired games like Uncharted can provide suitable enough story content to rely on, where games like Super Mario Brothers couldn’t.

Indie Intros: Steven Spielberg’s Amblin’

So I’ve decided to add a segment to the blog, one that will hopefully show that every filmmaker, even the great ones, started out somewhere. Indie Intros will look at early short films from famous directors made well before they were ever household names. The goal will be to pick up on early influences, analyze growth or simply sit back and enjoy the early works of filmmaking’s finest. To kick it off, I’ve decided to start with arguably the most famous name in film, Steven Spielberg.

“Amblin'” is one of Spielberg’s very first short films. It was directed in 1968 and shot on good old 35mm. The name “Amblin” would later become synonymous with some of Spielberg’s best work. In 1981 Amblin Entertainment was founded with Spielberg’s partners Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall and would go on to produce some of the most memorable films from directors such as Robert Zemeckis, Clint Eastwood, Richard Donner, Martin Scorsese and The Coen Brothers.

“Amblin'” as a film, probably doesn’t hold up very well by today’s standards. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just very late 60’s. For instance, the tag line for the film is, “He and she were thumb-trippin’. They had the makin’s… and the tail-end of summer.” I have absolutely no idea what that’s supposed to mean. On top of that, virtually every stereotype we’ve come to know about the hippy generation is in this film. Folk music? Check. Psychedelic double exposures? All day. Drug use? Of course. Free love? Why not? Volkswagen Type 2’s? How else would you get around? There’s even a shot of sunflowers blowing in the wind for good measure. To sum the plot, it’s really just two unnamed kids walking through desert landscapes for 25 minutes on their way to Mordor or someplace.

“Amblin'” has no dialogue to speak of. As a film study, it’s interesting, because what plot points we get must be told through the actions of the characters. We know that the two are hitchhiking, that’s clear by the setting. There’s a sort of hesitance with the boy, as he holds on tight to his guitar case, not letting anyone touch it. What could he be hiding? The girl, on the other hand, is clearly the “free spirit” of the two. She hands the boy his first joint, invites him into her sleeping bag and generally frees his mind. She’s basically the late 60’s version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It’s almost as if Spielberg is channeling the silent film directors of old and giving them a swinging sixties makeover.

What may come surprising to many filmmakers used to digital movie making, is that “Amblin'” cost around $15,000 to make. The type of production value you can get with $15,000 on modern equipment might have you scoffing at “Amblin'”, but instead, take this as a history lesson as to how expensive it used to be to shoot on film.

Ultimately, “Amblin'” would go on to win festival awards at the Atlanta Film Festival and Worldfest Houston. It eventually found it’s way to Universal, where they offered Spielberg a seven-year contract.