Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Elysium - Open or Closed Frame?

Ok, Elysium... First let's be clear I liked it a lot - more than Pacific Rim which everyone has been raving about, and much more than the somewhat forgettable Oblivion. This isn't a film review, but as a fan of Neill Blomkamp and movies of this genre which I would call "sci-fi movies with a point" and someone who supports valiant attempts like this by studios to do something new, I think it's worth discussing briefly why Elysium didn't live up to its obvious potential...

I must say that while I was entranced by much of the stunning, epic imagery unfolding up on the screen I couldn't help thinking why don't they spend the same amount of money, effort and resources on each line of the script as they do on each amazing, gloriously designed and rendered frame of this movie? The mismatch was literally jarring in places. And most people seem to agree the main problems were due to the script, whose flaws are numerous... but there have been plenty of thorough dissections already. (Suffice to say that one of the biggest flaws is the equivalent of having your hero managing to reach Treasure Island against all odds, finding the treasure - which his life depends on - and completely ignoring it.)

It's my firmly held belief that in all cases the single most important factor that determines the quality of a film is "The script, the script, the script" as Hitchcock said. Seems kind of obvious since it is the plan for the film after all, but I've had debates before about whether a director can be the most important factor, since they can potentially turn a bad or mediocre script into something great, or vice versa, etc. To be clear, I'm not saying blame or credit the scriptwriter for every good or bad movie, I'm talking specifically about the final shooting script that forms the blueprint for the film, which can be partly created by the director, producer, etc. (In practice what generally happens is critics blame the writer when it's a bad script and credit the director when it's a good one. That can't happen in this case since Blomkamp is credited as both)

So... our expectations for Elysium were extremely high, as we imagined what would this guy who did District 9 do if he was let loose with a Hollywood blockbuster budget? By Blomkamp's own account that's exactly what Sony did, giving him a very wide berth. Well, there's a reason why movies costing hundreds of millions of dollars usually hire one or more skilled, professional screenwriters who are paid proportionally. On the other hand I'm somewhat familiar with the Hollywood development process so I'm not going to lay the blame solely on Blomkamp since we have no idea how the final shooting script came to be...

One of the weaknesses of Elysium compared to District 9 is its failure to convince us of the fully fleshed out reality of this world. @TysonWade who is a huge Blomkamp fan tweeted "Only complaint was the world felt small. District 9 felt bigger. Why?" But a different friend on Facebook said this was awesome world building, on par with Blade Runner. Very different reactions.  Another colleague at work brought up the same thing, saying the world - especially Elysium itself - felt like a facade without a fully developed reality to it, which I agree with. We were never really invited in to see the wealthy society that inhabited this world. We just saw a few cartoonish figures who were meant to represent the pinnacle of this class structure. Jodie Foster's character being an oddly isolated, lone figure with no cabal of co-conspirators, there was no sinister web of corruption to take us deeper into the intrigue, etc. We never got a sense of the wider world - what are other cities like? If they can build a giant Halo ring like that, have we explored/colonized the rest of the solar system? Are there other organizations out there the downtrodden classes of Earth might turn to? Who knows...

This is a question of whether a movie is "open or closed frame". Check out this further elaboration you film students might be familiar with:

Films I would consider successfully Open frame would be the first Star Wars, Close Encounters,  The French Connection, Terminator, or the more recent Children of Men, most of which are descendants of cinéma vérité (Lucas had just done American Graffiti, a very raw, documentary-style film before Star Wars). Examples that feel closed frame to me would be 2001, Logan's Run, Gattaca, etc.  To be clear, Elysium was MEANT to be naturalistic and open-frame, that is after all Blomkamp's trademark, and it's part of the reason were disappointed he didn't fully deliver in that department. So why did it fall short?

I would argue the script is where choices are made about what is shown, described, implied, how open ended the story is, how determinate or indeterminate things are, how many characters there are... I've noticed that back in the 60s and 70s films tried harder to achieve a sense of naturalism, and I don't mean the modern gimmicky shaky cam and 'gritty' post which has nothing to do with reality beyond the lens, it's only an artifact of technology that captures (or fakes) that reality on any given piece of hardware for that day. In the 70s for example, actors in films still used to talk over each other at the same time (See Catch-22 or almost any of Spielberg's early films). Apparently that never happens any more. There were weird, quirky twists and plot turns inspired by the unpredictable nature of real life. There used to be random people who lived outside of the central story, passing in and out of frame, some with lines, some not, all there just to flesh out the world and add texture, life and believability. Modern scriptwriting conventions teach you to strip out all extraneous elements to the bare minimum until you have a tight, lean script with no fat. But what if you cut out so much you end up with a bare, lifeless shell? Or what if your arbitrary release schedule is so tight there's no time to add in all those layers of nuance and detail before production begins...

Anyway I will just sum up with a general complaint I have about many big studio movies  which spend far too much money and effort on everything including actors and not nearly enough on getting the script right (which effectively costs nothing in terms of resources and studio overheads) before greenlighting production. On the other hand we do sometimes hear when projects canceled or postponed indefinitely until the script is right, which is the right thing to do.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Kevin Smith's Superman Lives

So www.comicbookmovie.com and io9.com posted some of my old concept art from the infamously aborted Superman Lives project, which was written by Kevin smith and to be directed by Tim Burton.


During my early freelance career I worked briefly on several films in development by way of Hasbro's "Special Projects' division, such as Dreamwork's (aborted) Helen of Troy: Exo, the (aborted) Superman Lives, Men in Black 2, Small Soldiers 2, Jurassic Park 3 and Cowboys & Aliens (aborted then resurrected 10 years later). They would collaborate with the studios developing art, story ideas, building maquetees etc. as speculative bids to try and land the merchandising rights, e.g.  on "Helen of Troy: Exo" they made a 3 foot high models based on some of my designs, another example was the transforming car in Men in Black which they made at their own expense and the studio used in the film but they never got the contract.

I must admit looking back some of this stuff hasn't held up too well! For Superman Lives I was working mostly in the dark based on vague descriptions without  seeing a script. At the time it all sounded rather crazy and confusing, with Brainiac's Skull Ship that could absorb anything it came across, Brainiac himself inside some sort of alien shape-shifting 'hybrid technology' which would open up and engulf people and grow ever larger, more limbs, etc, then Superman also had alien tech in the form of the Eradicator, which could become a suit as well as transform into an 'Interceptor' ship...  A giant biomechanical alien spider thing which had a body that could open up and smaller ones came out, etc, etc...

At the time I had no idea who had written it or that Tim Burton was on board to direct, but they told me Jim Carrey and Gary Oldman were being considered for Brainiac. It was interesting to read the script years later and see that Kevin Smith had actually done a pretty impressive job by introducing the Eradicator as a transforming suit in order to weave together all the requirements the producer wanted: "No Superman suit, no flying... and a giant spider in the 3rd act." He even managed to include 2 polar bears.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Making Halo 4: Majestic Map Pack

Behind the scenes of Certain Affinity's role in the latest multiplayer maps for Halo 4. You might recognize the somewhat pretentious but grammatically incorrect voice saying "There's going to be new places in the Halo universe that have not been seen before."

Thursday, October 25, 2012

"SEED" short film by Tyson Wade Johnston

The completed film is now online, great job by Tyson and the team.
I did concept art, matte paintings and the Precog team helped out with ship cg model and rendering, planet elements, etc:

Nice to see it made Vimeo's Staff Picks!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

"SEED" trailer - short film by Tyson Wade Johnston

Teaser went up on various websites/blogs for the new short by Tyson Wade Johnston, a talented young director who attracted a fair bit of attention in Hollywood for his debut film "Exist".

I'd been helping him with some visual and story development and ended up doing some concept and vfx work with our Precog Studios guys on his latest sci-fi project:

Here are some samples of concept and model work in progress from the team:

 Colour comps by A.J. Trahan.

Heavy Transport concept by me & Michael Pedro. 3DS Max model and rendering by Jeff Arthur & Dean Fowler.

Fighter Bomber concept by A.J. Trahan and Michael Pedro.

"A.R.M.D." Autonomous Remote Monitor Drone - an arm work in progress from the drone robot. Concept by me, 3DS Max modeling by Dean Fowler.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Epic Mickey at the Smithsonian

My good friend tweeted me this pic he stumbled upon hanging up in the Smithsonian!

This is the original digital painting, minus the Mickey ears I added in the version used for the marketing campaign.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Another 15 minutes of fame on io9.com

"The Cowboys & Aliens Movie That Never Was"

So after posting one of pics on their site which was a nice suprise, io9 followed up asking if I had any more old art from the Cowboys & Aliens stuff I did way back when.. I had a rummage around and these were about all I could find.. (must find a better filing system than old boxes in the garage)