Friday, May 30, 2008

Thoughts on Indy IV

So this post is a week later than is probably relevant, but a full and busy week it's been. Shot a bunch on the RED last weekend, and shooting some more starting tomorrow. I've been cutting this and keying that and sitting down to talk about Descendants with several folks who took the time to read and review the latest draft. Busy busy.

This is actually a re-post of a post I made over at the fxphd forums, when asked what my "likes and dislikes" were with the film. I wound up covering everything I wanted to say, so while it's less of a structured "movie review" (which is why I didn't call this post a review), I think it's pretty much all there.


Oh man, where to begin. Well, I'll start with likes:

Some of the FX were really top-notch. The mushroom cloud (despite its logistical problems that I'll get into below) was phenomenal, as was the climactic shot of the UFO lifting off and the rocks whirling around it. The water filling the canyon looked great too.

Unlike a lot of others, I actually liked the concept of an alien movie. Look, if I can accept God as a McGuffin -- twice! -- and another movie where people are pulling other peoples' hearts out of their chests, I can accept aliens.

And I even like the reasoning Lucas had for it -- the movies set in the 40s were made like movies from the 40s, so a movie set in the 50s should be like a movie from the 50s. The 40s were action-adventure serials, the 50s were science-gone-wrong and alien invasion tales.

The skulls looked really cool and the room of the crystal skeletons was like something out of classical mythology -- powerful stuff.

Now the dislikes:

As an FX artist and a filmmaker, I have a lot of friends who are filmmakers but not so savvy on FX, and they tend to want to do a lot of stuff with FX that isn't necessary. One of my favorite stories to tell them is that Spielberg always appreciated the fact that the limitations on Jaws ultimately made it a better movie, forced him to be more creative, and he kept that lesson with him even as he became STEVEN SPIELBERG. Even though he could get any budget to do anything he wanted, for a long time he would limit himself to 400 VFX shots in a film. If there was a shot that put him over the limit, he had to either figure out a way to do it without VFX, or figure out how to do another moment without relying on FX. In keeping himself limited he ultimately kept his creativity strong by thinking around "we can do it with CG."

As I said, I've told all my filmmaking friends about this, so sitting in the theatre and watching CG gopher shot after Tarzan Shia shot made me feel like an asshole, because obviously that's gone totally out the window.

Spielberg made a big deal about how he and the DP swallowed their pride and watched all three movies, so SS could go back to his early style, and the DP could duplicate the previous DP's style. I didn't see any of that. It felt like a modern movie trying too hard -- is it so much to ask not to throw a diffusion filter on the camera, Kaminski? The original films are very simply shot, straightforward but powerful, the lighting naturalistic. This one had cuts where there would have been camera moves, and heavy heavy HEAVY filtering where there should have been none at all. As far as matching the originals stylistically, I give it an F.

Now one of my biggest issues. These days your MOVIE heroes are always total badasses who know how to handle any situation you throw at them. Your Vin Diesel characters, your Angelina Jolie characters. They're always calm, cool, collected, and there's never a question that they're going to come out on top of any situation.

In pitching the direction I want to take Descendants, I've always said that I don't want Charlie, the main character, to be That Guy. I want him to be Indiana Jones.

Indiana Jones has a tendency to get in over his head, in situations for which he's not wholly prepared. When he gets into a situation where he's pretty much fucked, you can see on his face that he knows he's pretty much fucked, and only by sheer luck or cleverness does he manage to escape. When the hero clearly thinks that he might be about to die, the audience thinks that maybe he's about to die. We're there with him and when he gets out by the skin of his teeth, we cheer our fool heads off.

So imagine my disappointment when Indiana Jones turned out to be That Guy this time around.

First off, the fridge. There's so much logistically wrong with it my head might explode. I mean:

-Even generously assuming that the lead lining is enough to protect him from the radiation, it protects him from the shockwave AND the heat as well?
-Even generously assuming that the lead lining saves him from all three, he would have been killed multiple times bouncing about the desert on landing.
-Even generously assuming he survives that, the lead lining only protects him while he's in the fridge. If he got out as close to the blast as he would have to in order to get the iconic mushroom cloud shot that they did, he's dying of radiation poisoning. I don't care how hard they scrubbed him down at FBI HQ.
-Where's the hail of all the other fridges that were also thrown clear totally intact? He happened to be in the only one?
-You could have totally removed that scene and it would have changed nothing in the story.

There's a movement starting to make the term Nuking the Fridge the film franchise equivalent of Jumping the Shark. I think that's appropriate. That's shit you pull in a Jason Statham vehicle, it's not something that happens to Indiana Jones.

Indiana Jones doesn't survive the plunge over three waterfalls. The bad guys die going over the waterfall, and Indy uses his cleverness and luck to avoid going over the falls at all.

I never once felt like Indy was in any genuine danger. You have him survive a nuclear blast in the first ten minutes of the film, and then you expect me to worry about him in a fistfight? Sorry, no.

None of the actors felt like they had anything to do. I really like Shia in general but a big part of that is the wit and personality he brings to his characters, very little of which was present here. Great to have Karen Allen back, but so little was actually done with her character that it felt superfluous and fanwanky.

Then there were all the great ideas that were brought up and then dropped just as quickly, almost every scene. It seriously felt like they'd just taken one scene from each draft they'd done over the last 20 years and grafted them together in semi-chronological order.

For example, Cate Blanchette's character is supposed to be a freaking psychic. That's established in the very first scene where she tries to read Indy's mind. There's even implications that maybe she's telekinetic. That disappears totally after the opening scene. Sure, she mentions mind control later when infodumping about the importance of the skulls, but her own psychic abilities are nonexistent. It makes her seem more like that weird emo girl at your high school that no one wanted to eat lunch with, than a genuinely threatening villainess. And her first-year acting school Soviet accent didn't help, either. I love Cate, I would think she could do no wrong, but man.

Or how about the next scene, where Indy finds the crate by throwing gunpowder in the air? Where's the moment where they all point their guns at him only to realize that he's destroyed all their ammo, enabling his escape? And if not ALL their ammo, at least make them have to reload.

Or how about the interrogation scene, where Indy is subjected to McCarthyist paranoia? Sure, he loses his job, but come on. You could build a whole subplot around the idea that Indiana Jones is declared an Enemy of the State, and have the Russians AND the Americans trying to stop him from doing what he's gotta do. But no, Janitor gives him a few of his favorite Scrubs lines and that plotline is dropped entirely.

On and on and on.

I think what upset me most, though, is how little Spielberg seemed to trust the audience. Damn near every scene was an expository infodump that just screamed "Look how much research we did on the subject!" and advanced the story very, very little.

But the most egregious examples are when Indy spoon fed us exactly what we were supposed to understand.

"Damn, I thought that was closer." Come on. That same moment in Raiders would have been totally silent. Indy crashes into the truck. He and the two bad guys sit in stunned silence for a second, then he grins sheepishly at the driver before elbowing them both in the face and shoving them out. Nothing need be said.

"Those darts are poison!" Okay, seriously, blowdarts are always poisoned. That's what blowdarts are for. I think it's safe to assume that we get it.

"Their treasure wasn't gold, it was knowledge. Knowledge was their treasure." He seriously said the same thing twice, phrased in reverse, just to make sure we didn't miss it.

And of course, one of the most shocking dialogue choices to me: "What am I being accused of -- besides surviving a nuclear blast?" The script has the audacity to remind us of how ludicrous the preceding scene was.

Overall I could do a DVD commentary, scene-by-scene regarding how absurd it all is, and that's not the case with the other Indy pictures. Okay, maybe Temple of Doom. But you'd think after almost twenty years they could do better than that. It had all the elements of an Indy movie, all the characters -- again, almost to the extent of fanwankery with all the nods to Raiders -- but it never actually felt to me like I was watching an Indy movie. It was just another of the long list of movies trying to capture the Indy magic, but failing. The tragedy is that this time, it was official.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Weezer Video: Pork and Beans

Okay, so you know that "music video from a prominent band" I mentioned?

As some of you have no doubt surmised, it was Weezer, for their single Pork and Beans. That is really us, but since it was shot in HD and then downscaled to YouTube I've been cut out of almost every shot.

Fun fact: they apparently wanted Star Wars Kid initially; when that didn't pan out, they called us. Works for me!

We also managed to talk them into letting us do the lightsaber effects for the video ourselves, although ultimately I did all the lightsabers and Ryan did all the drumsticks (which they wanted in red and then changed).

That is *really* everyone it's supposed to be. Doing the shoot was incredibly surreal given that we had all seen and enjoyed each others' videos, and everyone there was incredibly cool and fun to talk to. (And yes, they'd all seen the South Park episode they were in.)We all exchanged e-mails, which may just turn out to be your high school yearbook "K.I.T.!!!" gesture, but hopefully not.

Anyway, we all had a great time and even though we're not in there for much of it, we're proud to be a part of it and we hope it gets a bazillion views.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Out of town...

I'll be in Florida Tues-Thurs shooting some VFX plates for Sandrima Rising, the Star Wars project for which I am doing the visual effects. I'll be back Thursday night but won't have time to blog in the meantime (I will probably do some Twittering).

I wanted to post a review of Redbelt, which I saw this weekend, but I have too much to say and not enough time to write it down. Go watch it and we'll talk about it when I get back on Friday, because I thought it was amazing.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

I now pronounce you...

So great non-filmmaking news today: the Supreme Court of the state of California (where I live) has just overturned the standing ban on gay marriage, declaring it "unconstitutional".

Now, I'm not looking to get married any time soon, but it's seven flavors of bullshit to have that option refused to me. So it's great that the state Supreme Court sees it the same way. But of course, there are the jackasses who now want to change the state constitution to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples.

First of all, it always astonishes me that these people insist that the proponents of gay marriage are attempting to "redefine" what marriage is, when in fact they are the ones changing laws and amending constitutions in an attempt to -- say it with me -- redefine marriage to fit into their small-brained, bigoted worldview.

I have yet to have a single person give me a valid reason that "marriage" should be restricted to opposite-sex couples. Hint: "The Bible says" automatically invalidates your reason, because the Bible isn't the basis of American law. But that's a digression I'm in no particular mood for, because cooler heads have prevailed today.

In a surprising turn of events, Governor Schwarzenegger, who has repeatedly vetoed attempts to legalize gay marriage, has stated: "I respect the court's decision and as governor, I will uphold its ruling. Also, as I have said in the past, I will not support an amendment to the constitution that would overturn this [ruling]."

Indeed, although he has not supported gay marriage, citing Proposition 22, he has supported domestic partnerships, declaring that the Supreme Court and the voters were the ones who needed to decide about gay marriage. Prop 22 is out and it sounds like he plans to stick to his word. Maybe I need to take back some of the things I've said about him.

Original story here.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The future has landed...

Still pretty tired for a long weekend, but I had to share that this morning I received a call from FedEx informing me that I had four packages from "" awaiting me at the local depot. The whole drive back home I was giddy with equal parts anticipation and sleep deprivation (hell of a shoot this weekend).

And now, in my hands is RED ONE #1028. We shot a short "unbox" video of me cutting open the cardboard and getting my hands on the cam that I will either post or forget all about, we'll see.

RED users have established a tradition of giving their cameras names, which started with the codenames RED gave their own early prototype cameras. It's not mandatory, but I like the idea. This first run of REDs is something of a "limited edition" and I enjoy the notion of having a camera that is more personal than just a serial number.

I'm a massive Lovecraft fan and I really feel like the camera should have a Lovecraftian name, but I think "Cthulhu" or "Yog-Sothoth" would be a little too over-the-top for the RED ONE camera1, and "Pickman" and "Carter" are a little too generic as names (although Carter, being a master of dreams, is probably the most appropriate if you know the lore). I also don't want to name the camera after a story or character I might actually shoot someday, since that's a little self-referential and weird, which is another reason those are out.

So, I've settled on "Alhazred;" the character was a madman who had wild visions, and although you never see him, his presence, as author of the Necronomicon, is felt behind every story Lovecraft wrote. I think it's an appropriate moniker for a camera. Plus who can resist the fact that the name includes the syllable "red".

So yeah, short post, and we haven't shot anything with it yet (a few more missing pieces have to make their way to my doorstep), but it's coming, people. Oh, is it coming.

  1. Although if we upgrade to an Epic, I think I could be justified in having that camera take the name of a Great Old One or an Outer God.

    "Azathoth" has a great ring to it.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Busy week again

Been fixing Descendants. The script was "about 80% there" (the producers' words, and I agree), so the last couple weeks have been about that last 20%. Like anything else, the bulk of the work is the "easy" part; it's the last 10-20% that separates "alright" and "outstanding", and which takes the most work.

Additionally, in partnering with Wade/OIP, we inherited their future slate of projects, and vice-versa, as productions on our own slate. That was part of the deal -- and part of the appeal. But although I have about a dozen feature film ideas to develop post-Descendants, they have a half-dozen feature scripts already written. Besides lighting a fire under my ass to step up and get on the ball, it's also meant scripts to be read and thoughts to be shared on them. All of which conspires to take up all my writing energy for the week.

I had a mix-up in my schedule where I thought I would be out of town on a shoot next weekend -- but it turns out that the shoot is actually this weekend. So I've been scrambling a bit to sort that out.

On top of that, Ryan and I had a last-minute call to cameo in a music video by a prominent band. I hate being all vague and industry-talk about it, and I haven't signed an NDA, but it's a cool opportunity and I don't want to piss them off by blogging about it if they didn't want the news to get out. The shoot is tomorrow morning (call time 6:30 AM) and I've had to do some more rescheduling to fit that and the other, pre-existing shoot together. I'll post more specifics when I'm sure that I can.

So this is another brief "here's my excuse for not posting" post. Like I said, I'm out of town this weekend, but I'll try to write at least one in-depth theoretical post if I have some downtime.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Blinding Light in Partnership with Wade Val'iant/One Inch Punch

So we're not big enough to be making any headlines in Variety or Hollywood Reporter, but still, this is a big deal for us, and all our respective fanbases, so here's a pseduo-press release.

As of today, Blinding Light Productions is officially in partnership with Wade Val'iant and One Inch Punch Productions for all future film projects.

Wade Val'iant and One Inch Punch are, respectively, the production companies of Ski-ter Jones and Anthony Alba, two gentlemen who do outstanding work, with the recently-mentioned Animus as a great example.

I've worked with a lot of folks1 in the nine years (god, nine years -- time flew so I must be having fun) that I've been doing film and visual effects stuff. I've made friends with a number of them, made "call me if you're working on something" connections with many, but prior to today the only person I've made the "if you're on board, I'm on board" partnership with has been Ryan2. But working with Ski-ter and Anthony has changed that.

Filmmaking is like fighting a war (I still owe you folks a blog on that), and in war you want people you know have your back when the shit inevitably starts coming down around your ears. Until recently the only person I had that I knew could handle the battles with me was Ryan, but I know that I can trust Anthony and Ski-ter, because they've been doing it too.

As I said in my post on Animus, I was a fan of Anthony's work before I met him, and I've become a fan of him since. He's a great collaborator, very positive and passionate, and I click with him the way I click with Ryan. And similarly to the way Ryan and I work, where you get Anthony, you get Ski-ter, and I couldn't be happier. Ski-ter brings an attitude that reminds me why I love doing what we do.

I've been crewing a concept shoot for their feature, and last weekend we shot a fight scene. It was outdoors, it was hot, it was tiring, it was miserable, and I couldn't wait to do it again. There's an energy you get when everyone's moving in the same direction, with the same goals in mind, egos put aside and everyone focused on what's best for the project. It's the energy I get with Ryan, and it's the energy I get with Ski-ter and Anthony. It's a joy to work with all of them.

The last few weeks we've talked casually about the future, about us working together, but yesterday we sat down and officially discussed it. We all agreed that it seemed like a great idea, and now we are officially producing all each others' projects.

I'm thrilled, proud, and honored to have them on our team, and to be welcomed as a part of theirs. If you've thought the stuff we've done to date has been good, you ain't seen nothing yet.

  1. Most of the industry has a habit of using the noun "cats" to refer to the general filmmaking populace -- often with a subtle negative connotation. I'm still fighting the compulsion, but I have to admit that I almost did it just then.

  2. We do also essentially have this with Travis, but he's in Texas so there's an inherent degree of separation there where we can't really do anything besides post work.