Sunday, November 29, 2009

A New Age

Faced with the perpetually overcast sky and the near continual downpours of rain that robbed today of almost all daylight, and eager to stave off the unremitting cold that seems intent on seeping into my bones and taking up permanent residence whenever I step outside, I decided it was best to stay in, put my feet up and watch a good movie. I settled for Sir David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai.

I’d like to say that it was a casual choice but for the past few days I’ve had Ogden Nash’s observation, “progress might have been all right once, but it has gone on too long,” rolling around in my head. And with so much interest in motion capture, virtual sets, digital 3D, and all the other bollocks involved, I just wanted to watch a movie that replied on production rather than post–production.

If The Bridge on the River Kwai was made today no doubt a team of pixel–monkeys sitting at their computers would be employed to create the pyrotechnic finale. Or maybe they’d be doing the whole damn thing. Back in 1957, to make his film about obsessive characters the increasingly obsessive director, headed into the jungle with his cast and crew where they actually built the bridge and then eventually blew the fucker up – while a train was steaming across it – rather than relying on a miniatures unit to take care of business.

All told Lean and his team spent 250–odd days in Ceylon. In London last week for the Royal gala premiere of The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson, who is producing the new trilogy of Tintin films announced that, having long finished filming, they had a final edit of The Secret of the Unicorn. All that was left to do was the computer rendering, which would take the next two years to complete. Two years? Two whole fucking years?!

I can understand motion capture being used as a tool to aid in the creation of a computer–generated character that will be inserted into live action footage. The best example remains Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But to use the process to morph the actors into strangely exaggerated characters that inhabit a wholly CGI–environment seems totally redundant, especially when it takes up a massive amount of time, a huge chunk of change, and the end result is this strange, almost repellent quasi–animation that ultimately doesn’t work.

Once upon a time Robert Zemeckis made some pretty decent movies but now he’s retired from live–action to concentrate on motion capture the finished films haven’t been that impressive. Maybe Zemeckis became obsessed with the technology, or maybe he reached a point in his life where he preferred to film close to home and sleep in his own bed every night. Either way, someone should point out that if you want to make an really good animated feature, hire some expert animators rather than relying on expensive actors prancing around while they’re covered in little dots.

I sat through Beowulf and that was a struggle. It was like someone had decided to make a new car and asked shipbuilders to design and build it. If I want to watch an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol I’d go back to the live action Scrooge starring Alastair Sim or the animated version directed by Richard Williams, again starring Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, but not Zemeckis’ weird hybrid, especially knowing that they’d spunked $200 million on it.

The problem is these new movies seem to concentrate on the spectacle rather than the story. With Avatar steamrollering towards us it was eye–opening experience to read Joshua Davis’ article about James Cameron’s new movie in Wired magazine. In case you can’t be bothered to go and read it, here’s an excerpt:

He started by hiring USC linguistic expert Paul Frommer to invent an entirely new language for the Na’vi, the blue-skinned natives of Pandora. Frommer came on board in August 2005 and began by asking Cameron what he wanted the language to sound like? Did he want clicks and guttural sounds or something involving varying tones? To narrow the options, Frommer turned on a microphone and recorded a handful of samples for Cameron.

The director liked ejective consonants, a popping utterance that vaguely resembles choking. Frommer locked down a “sound palette” and started developing the language’s basic grammatical structure. Cameron had opinions on whether the modifier in a compound word should come first or last (first) and helped establish a rule regarding the nature of nouns. It took months to create the grammar alone. “He’s a very intense guy,” Frommer says. “He didn’t just tell me to build a language from scratch. He actually wanted to discuss points of grammar.”

Thirteen months after he began work on Avatar, Frommer wrote a pamphlet titled Speak Na’vi and started teaching the actors how to pronounce the language. He held Na’vi boot camps and then went over lines one by one with each actor. “Cameron wanted them to be emotional, but they had to do it in a language that never existed,” Frommer says. If an actor flubbed a Na’vi word, Frommer would often step in with a correction. “There were times when the actors didn’t want me to tell them that they had mispronounced a word that had never been pronounced before,” he says.

With the language established, Cameron set about naming everything on his alien planet. Every animal and plant received Na’vi, Latin, and common names. As if that weren’t enough, Cameron hired Jodie Holt, chair of UC Riverside’s botany and plant sciences department, to write detailed scientific descriptions of dozens of plants he had created. She spent five weeks explaining how the flora of Pandora could glow with bioluminescence and have magnetic properties. When she was done, Cameron helped arrange the entries into a formal taxonomy.

Why? With everyone pointing out Avatar’s remarkable similarities to Dances with Wolves, Return of the Jedi, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, FernGully: The Last Rainforest, Delgo, Battle for Terra, and now Call Me Joe, Poul Anderson’s short story from 1957 in which a paraplegic is put in control of an artificially–created life form to explore the surface of Jupiter, maybe Cameron should have obsessed less about the flora and fauna and concentrated more on creating a new and different story.

Just when you think blowing such an obscene amount of money on something so derivative is sickening it turns out Avatar is “literally vomit inducing”. Maybe this growing aversion to this new wave of films that rely on IMAX and 3D and all the shiny–shiny bells and whistles that goes with it rather than story are the first signs of me turning into an old fuddy-duddy. Instead of Avatar, this is the end of year movie that I’m most looking forward to...


At 7:27 am, Blogger Brian Barker said...

And before "Avatar" and "Star Trek" there was Bill Shatner speaking Esperanto, in the horror film called "Incubus".


As an Esperanto speaker I found it terrifying! His Esperanto pronunciation that is, not the film.

Your readers may be interested in :)

At 8:37 am, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

Gollum works because he is who and what he is and is surrounded by real actors. A whole picture of Gollumed folk is something else altogether.

I've very mixed feelings about A Christmas Carol, mainly because I'm a known Scroogeaholic and love seeing new tellings of this compelling story.

However, I saw it weeks ago and am still gearing myself up to blog about it!

The thing is, there's some genuinely amazing stuff in it, but, hey, I'm already damning with faint praise...

At 8:55 am, Blogger U.S.O. Project said...

An interview with Paul Frommer, Alien Language Creator for Avatar:

At 10:10 am, Blogger Steve Lorimer said...

I agree with Brian Sibley's comments on Gollum. CGI has to be in the context of the film as a whole. I find there is something incredibly soul-less about complete CGI films. Beowulf was a major disappointment to me, as there was just no discernable emotion from any of the characters I just couldn't empathise with them. A Lord of the Rings style mix of real and CGI characters would have probably been more satisfying.

Imaginary languages is another suspect area for me. Tolkien did it well in LOTR, inventing a whole myth and language for Elves and Dwarves, but then uses it very sparingly. I really can't see the point in using large amounts of dialogue in an imaginary language, just because you have gone to the trouble of creating it with a credible structure. It's just the sort of showing off that will only appeal to the nerdy single males who currently like to talk to each other in Klingon!

At 1:57 pm, Blogger qrter said...

That "Up in the air" trailer might be the first trailer I've seen in the last ten years or so, that didn't instantly make me never ever want to see the film in question.

At 5:48 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


Because it was getting late when I wrote this, I forgot to mention The Muppet Christmas Carol, which is always a great addition to the other two. I hope you managed to get some enjoyment out of the film. I saw enough clips and trailers to decide I didn’t want to see it. An aversion to Jim Carrey didn’t help either.

I don’t know how long studios will let Zemekis keep going with this less than marvellous obsession of his. The films certainly aren’t making a profit at the box–office, however many times they keep re–releasing The Polar Express. I wouldn’t have thought they made as much money on DVD as other animated features because they’re not exactly child–friendly fare.


I find it strange that while the talented chaps at Pixar can make films with these amazing characters that can make you laugh like an idiot and cry like a baby, the Zemekis mo-cap movies just suck all the life and emotion out of the cast’s performances. It’s like a veil has been held up between the actors and the audience, turning them into strange automatons.

It seems like there’s a pissing contest between the directors using the new equipment to see who can get the most out of their new toys, and the audience doesn’t really get a look in, not to mention the talented set designers and costume designers left sitting at home twiddling their thumbs.

The reason The Lord of the Rings works so brilliantly well is they use motion capture when they need it, computer generated effects when they need it, and model work when they need it, all combined with the wonderful acting performances.

While Tolkien may have created the languages as a scholarly exercise as much as anything else, they worked brilliantly within the pages of the novels and then especially later on screen because, as you say, they were used sparingly. After all, the director is meant to use his film to communicate a story to the audience, not to show how clever he is.

Why create Na’vi, Latin, and common names for all the animals and plants? Does the audience need to hear them? Do they improve the story? You could imagine something like a Sherlock Holmes mystery where a clue hinges on the use of a Latin name. I doubt the plot for Avatar really needs it, other than Cameron it trying to outdo George Lucas in terms of hardcore nerdity.

I can’t remember if I had heard this on The News Quiz or somewhere else but did you hear about this American father who only spoke Klingon to his baby son for the first three years of the kiddie’s life? First, that bloke’s obviously a nutter. Second, isn’t that some form of child abuse?

Years back I went to the NFT to see Sir David Lean being interviewed. When they showed the finale of The Bridge on the River Kwai, ending with Major Clipton walking toward the ruined bridge as the camera rises, Lean pointed out (rather grumpily) that it hadn’t actually been James Donald up on screen. Much to his annoyance, Sam Spiegel had already sent the actor home when it came time to film that final shot and so he had to make do with a stand–in.

Though they fought like cat and dog on occasion, if Lean didn’t have Spiegel to keep him in check he’d probably still be in the jungles of Ceylon or in the desert making Lawrence. Looking at Cameron’s career – and he certainly isn’t a true filmmaker’s filmmaker like Lean – he was far more inventive when he had far less money. What he desperately needs is a producer with the will to stand up to him and give him a slap when he starts getting too overindulgent.


As soon as I saw the trailer I thought, yes, that’s the one for me. I just checked the UIP website and through the links found out it isn’t released here until January 15th. You get it in the Netherlands the day before.

At 2:19 pm, Blogger Riddley Walker said...

All this 'photo-realistic' rendering crap just looks like moving corpses. There’s no emotion behind the eyes and it really creeps me out.

Polar Express was especially disturbing, in a Westworld/Invasion of the Bodysnatchers kind of way.

Hey, here’s a thought. Hire some actors and a good cinematographer. Worked just fine for some of the greatest films ever made, which are still just as moving as they ever were. Though obviously, the addition of space-monkeys in the post-production of It’s A Wonderful Life would make it so much better...

Avatar is just techno-wank, over a ham-fisted and clumsily derivative story. It reeks of the sort of kludging that hack TV sci-fi writers do when they don’t really understand speculative fiction. Jam together a bit of Philip Pullman, some barely-understood news items about the LHC and CERN, along with whatever Kylie’s currently singing about. Yawn.

The Wire got people like Dennis Lehane in, in much the same way that Star Trek got hold of Harlan Ellison et al, to bring to bear their expertise on a genre they already knew intimately and were confident and at-home in. All this crap about plant names, languages and such was all well and good for Tolkien, who was an expert linguist and spent quite a bit more than a few months on concocting the various tongues for Middle Earth.

Everyone seems to think they can lash it all together in a hurry, if they just throw enough money at it.

Like fuck.

At 5:16 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

I was just flipping through the 20th Anniversary edition of Empire (the only issue I’ve bought this year). Typically there’s an article where they furiously suck Cameron’s cock. One of the pulls quotes lifted from his blather reads:

“Now an actor can be any character they can imagine. And a director can create any world, any time and any space.”

Of course cinema is a visual medium, it would be daft to say it wasn’t. But there has to be an engaging story attached otherwise he might as well make his pretty little pictures and have an exhibition somewhere.

There’s also an article about Avatar in The Independent that mentions, according to the publicity, this film will take us “to a spectacular world beyond our imagination”. Really?

Actually a verdant jungle world filled with exotic plants, populated by a bunch of blue creatures that ride flying lizard creatures and have to fight off an army sponsored by a corporation that wants to mine the place for precious ores... That’s fucking well beneath my imagination. It should be beneath everyone’s imagination because it is pish!


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