Monday, November 26, 2007

My Stories

Many people who know me will know that I have several talents, some of which I'm good at and others that I'm yet developing; but the one that I can confidently say that I'm good at is coming up with ideas and concepts. Turning my ideas into usable stories that can be told and shared is among the talents that I am developing, but from all of the media that I have exposed myself to recently- from the forum by Orson Scott Card to the literary books I've been reading to the reactions of people that I've shared some of my ideas with- the response so far has been very encouraging; even from people who would know better than to give me positive feedback when it is not deserved.

It was very encouraging for me to learn that I'm heading in the right direction with my stories. Granted, the introduction [to my story] was rather weak but I'm in the process of replacing it with a stronger one.

If you are interested in the details of this forum, I attended it with Glen Moyes- who took the time to put up a similar blog post that may interest you. I recognize that, for my story, I will only have one shot at making it. If it turns out to be crap- and it very well could if I'm not careful- then it's going to be thrown out like last week's garbage. I recognize this, and I recognize that high quality shows are very hard to come by. I relate my philosophy here because this isn't something that I necessarily want to remain secret- I would love to have good media available for myself to enjoy. But on that same token, this advice has to be followed in order to be effective, and believe me when I say that I treat this as gospel.

Exhibit A: Lucas Syndrome
When George Lucas was making the Star Wars prequels, he surrounded himself not with creative minds bent on improving his project- but with drones whose only vocabulary word was "Yes." The result is a poorly paced, badly written, and clumsily executed production whose only redeeming factor was its [at the time] revolutionary special effects. The acting was bad, the writing was bad, the dialog was... we don't have words coined yet to describe the gut-wrenching dialog. Yippeeeee!

To simply say that I take criticism is a drastic understatement. There are few people I entrust enough with my entire story, but I do frequently tell people isolated ideas to see how they react and ask for opinions. If the initial reaction is not what I had hoped for or intended, then I will either revise the idea or abandon it completely in favor of something else that works better.

In most cases, people who criticize your work are genuinely trying to help you improve it- to ignore them is a quick way to ruin your production.

Exhibit B: Quidditch Syndrome
It is apparently very tempting to halt the story in favor of some scene that's totally awesome but utterly irrelevant. The pod race in Star Wars is one of the worst offenders I've seen, but there are dozens more. Hollywood is crawling with bad action scenes that are genuinely fun to watch but literally pull you out of the story because they butcher the pacing.

Most commonly, this trap is sprung in action films, or in a film that has a lengthy chase scene or other "awesome" sequence. The mainstream action junkie audience doesn't seem to be hard to please. After all, there are people out there that actually seemed to like the movie 300. Everyone seems to have their niche, flashy mind-numbing garbage just isn't mine.

A similar problem often appearing in fantasy and scifi works is showing off the world. I caught myself several times on this, and have to constantly watch it. I'm writing a milieu story, so it's very tempting to just pull back and show off the world that I've created. I occasionally do this still- but never at the expense of the story. The parts of the world that I do show are specifically relevant to what's happening, and when I do pull back, I do so for long enough to get the point across but briefly enough to avoid disrupting the pacing. (to be fair, the pacing is such that it does allow for such brief breaks)

Examples where this was done well are very hard to come by, which is frustrating for me because experimenting with things such as this are very difficult and time consuming. One such "good" example does exist though, Lord of the Rings did it beautifully. You got to see glimpses of the world, experience its vastness and expanse, but never at the expense of the plot. In Pixar films such as Cars, Monster's Inc and Ratatouille, the world is shown in its expanse and beauty without ever disrupting the pacing. Next time you watch Ratatouille, pay attention to just how much of Paris you get to see. How much you experience it. Then remind yourself that not only was this never about Paris, but you probably never noticed how much of Remy's world you actually experienced. Almost every Pixar movie does this beautifully, and that's how I'm working on crafting mine.

Never allow perceived "awesomeness" ruin the pacing

Exhibit C: Michael Bay Syndrome
I tend to rate action films on a "crappy meter." One can always tell how bad a movie is by how many helicopters blow up. Buildings count as half a blown up helicopter, and cars count as a third; unless they blew up by being shot at by a handgun. Then it counts double. This stuff isn't bad because it's cliché, it's bad because it's plain stupid. Firing a handgun at a car is not going to make it spontaneously explode, scratching a guy's arm is not going to make blood spray everywhere like a Monty Python skit (300) and crashing a car into a barrier is not going to make it fly through the air and hit a pursuing helicopter (Live Free or Die Hard).

I also don't understand the fascination with big fiery explosions in slow motion that are suspiciously devoid of smoke and debris. The single brilliant line from the television show Stargate put it perfectly: "Why must everything inevitably explode?"

Special effects are great. They can take a fantastic non-existent world and breathe life into it. Make it real and believable. Look at what special effects can do in the right hands with Lord of the Rings, virtually every Pixar movie and even Batman Begins. All of these films are in different genres and yet all believable, fantastic movies- thanks in only small part to the special effects. What truly made these movies great is the fact that the directors didn't let the effects get in the way of true storytelling. They told the story, and the unlimited arsenal of effects was used in carefully calculated ways in order to present the story in as high quality format possible. Most directors do this the other way around; coming up with a few crappy visual effects and trying hard to come up with a lame story to use as an excuse to show said effect. The end result is both lame and forgettable.

Audiences can see great special effects anywhere; but truly mastered storytelling- now that's a rare treasure.

Exhibit D: Shrek Syndrome
Nothing will date a movie quicker than pop music, and industry leaders don't seem to realize that not everyone likes said music to begin with. I personally can't stand it. But classical or orchestrated music- now that's timeless. The possible exception to this is historical movies, or movies where the music is part of the setting (such as those god-forsaken sports films)

Less bad, but more commonplace is to include crude references to current (or recent) events that future generations will not understand. I've watched a fair amount of old films that were able to withstand the test of time, and that's a feat few films from any era have managed. Most directors probably don't care about this- they just want to get the movie out and make their bucks on the initial release. I hear residuals aren't that swift on movies. This is relevant to me, however, as my story is a series that's meant to be watched more than once to get the "whole story." Though it's clear and concise the first time, It's calculated to be an entirely different experience once you've seen the ending. What if this thing takes me twenty years to finish?

Films that can be enjoyed by future generations will generally be enjoyed more by the current generation.

Exhibit E: Disney Syndrome
Nothing is more of a sharp guarantee of making a piece of crap movie than doing it for the sole purpose of making money. Walter Disney said that he makes money in order to enable him to make more quality movies. If only his company trailed in his beliefs, as today Disney is the worst offender of capitalizing on the successes of others; even if "others" is referring to their own past. Recall that when March of the Penguins was released it was quickly followed by Happy Feet, Surfs Up, Madagascar, Farce of the Penguins and a re-release of Scamper the Penguin. All of these were invariably horrible movies- in some cases bad enough to warrant walking out of the theater or returning the rented DVD a few hours early.

Penguins aren't the only victim of marketing, look at how many fantasy films were released in the wake of Lord of the Rings, how many superhero movies we've had after the success of Spiderman, and how many computer animated films get thrust upon us thanks to the success of Pixar. Sequels also abound, just look at Shrek or the Spiderman films.

I'm not against sequels if the story is part of a series and designed as such from the start (see Lord of the Rings), but this seldom happens. Typically, when I think of sequels, I think of such garbage as Lion King 1 1/2. Sure, that's quite an extreme example, but we can at least agree that sequels almost never live up to the original. They're usually the studio trying to milk an accidental success further than they should- thus ruining the original. The only thing that's worse than sequels, I think, is prequels.

When planning for a series, plan all the way to the end before producing the first- otherwise let each film stand on its own merits. The world will respect you all the more for it.

Exhibit F: Laura Croft Syndrome
It's very interesting that people actually think audiences want to see boobs and sex in movies. We're literally screaming for films without that junk in it. Hell, if witnessing reproduction are what we're going to the cinema for, we're not going to go see an action flick; we're going to see a porno. So why insult the rest of the audience with it? Is that not on the same level as putting a flippant brightly-colored seven-minute-long musical number in a Die Hard movie? (see Exhibit B above)

This is so commonplace anymore that audiences are actually tolerating it. I find this sad, because in addition to removing artistic quality, mixing genres that don't seem to mix well, and cheapening the film overall; it tends to arouse idiots who lack self control. Sure, Exhibit F would fit very well included in both Exhibit B and Exhibit E because it tends to throw off pacing and is typically only included on the conclusion that sex sells- but the problem is so rampant that it deserved it's own section of this text.

Sex may earn a few bucks from perverts who will see anything with exposed or suggested genitalia, but this audience will not last, and your film will be quickly forgotten in the ocean of other bad films.

Exhibit G: Sammuel L. Jackson Syndrome
You know what? I'm tired of all these mother effin directors making all these mother effin bad movies. We seem to be feeding children this delusion that profanity is "cool" or "grown up." For me, profanity is not cool, grown- up, or even offensive. Seriously, I am in no way offended by profanity. It is, however, juvenile. Think about this for a moment, who do you hear cursing in your everyday life? I haven't heard it rampantly since Middle School. By High School, most students had grown out of it, and only those that were generally referred to as the "least mature" still cursed to excess. We didn't refer to them as immature at the time, instead we thought of them as "stupid," not realizing that the two terms are not synonymous.

Even then, we never did pin down the reason everyone thought so little of such people- but looking back it's a lot easier to identify. They simply had an inability to express themselves without cursing; which by high school was an act we associated with younger and less intelligent middle school kids. As an adult, the effects of profanity are even more profound. No one will say anything about it, but subconsciously, they think very little of people who cannot express themselves and make assumptions. Perhaps some people really are that incapable of self expression, who knows, but just as people build opinions about the intelligence of people around them they will build opinions of your characters in exactly the same way. Since I spend a great deal of time thinking about characterization, I may be more aware of this than most, but it's hard to deny that you impulsively assumed that Jackson's character on Snakes on a Plane was unintelligent as soon as he opened his mouth.

This works both ways, have you ever been in an environment filled with people who swear, and made the conscious decision not to follow suit? I have, and let me tell you, the people around you may not notice it consciously but they do tend to view you on a whole different level from themselves; often not even realizing why.

Cordially, characters on Comedy Central's South Park are portrayed as unintelligent simply by using profanity, very effectively I might add. The creators of that show even admit on their web page that the strong use of profanity is included in their show to show the immaturity of the characters involved. If that's what you're aiming for, then so be it, but if you want your show to be taken seriously, then... count how many swear words were used in Batman Begins and get back to me- and notice how carefully paced the cursing is. This exhibit is a bit more subjective than the ones above because it depends on what type of characters you have and what the story is, but it's hard to believe in characters that the audience sees as unintelligent or inferior to themselves or people around them.

I often times see films where they make the villain curse. I don't know why they decide to do this, but I have noticed that it makes the villain much less menacing; because as we all know, a stupid villain is not a dangerous one.

Audiences will only care about characters they can believe in, and if they don't care, you will lose them.

Exhibit H: Schwarzenegger Syndrome
Okay, I'm going to go out and make this movie. It'll be great, it's a sequel of a successful movie from last year and I'm going to fill it with big name actors. I even have a trailer out for this. And I don't have to make the movie any good because audiences will pay to see any piece of crap that sticks to the screen so long as it has those people's names on it! It'll be brilliant!

In addition to the risk that such actors will do something stupid right before your film comes out and tank any benefit you may have had from using them (see Tom Cruise) this also doesn't guarantee you'll have an audience. In fact, most people I've talked to don't care. Well, most don't, you still have the occasional idiot that will see any movie that has Orlando Bloom in it, and will continue to do so until Hollywood tells them to start senselessly lusting after someone else. This is like spiffy special effects- it's so commonplace anymore that it just doesn't matter as long as it's well done. Your actors must be good and high quality, of course, but audiences generally don't care if they recognize that face or name. If only this held true in politics, perhaps we could get a good president in office for once; something that we have not had as long as I've been alive.

Don't give in to cheap marketing crap- it doesn't make good movies. all it makes is forgettable garbage that makes people wonder why you bothered.

Exhibit I: Titanic Syndrome
To understand how I named this one you would need to understand what is inherently wrong with the movie Titanic. The film was made in less than a year, from writing to final product. Think about that for a minute- just from a writing standpoint. How much of that year was the writer given? I don't know, but I think it would be grossly generous to assume they had a month. What kind of script could you write in a month? A first draft for sure, but then what? No story of any quality is refined and perfected in that short a time. Peter Jackson spent years refining the script for Lord of the Rings- and that film already had a book out to base it off of. Pixar never allows a film into production unless it's been worked on for at least three years to allow the story to fully flesh itself out.

Pixar's character from the short "Geri's Game" put it very accurately in his cameo appearance in Toy Story 2: "You can't rush art." Writing is simply another art form, and if it's rushed, then of course it's going to turn out like crap. How Titanic was so successful I can hardly fathom, but that doesn't change the fact that it could have been fantastic if the writer would have slowed down and done it right. I only use Titanic as my example for this pitfall because I happened to have seen a "making of" documentary on it that mentioned this. As soon as I saw that, it made perfect sense why the film was so awful- and subsequently why so many films in recent history have been just train wrecks. Most films that are released could be great in the right hands- hands that know to slow down and do it right.

Look at what happened to Batman as soon as they put it in the hands of Chris Nolan. No batman film, television show or cartoon had ever been of any measurable quality up to that point, but as soon as someone took the time to do it right, the end result caught me off guard to such an extent that I wasn't sure how to take it- a movie that was actually done correctly and actually seemed to follow my dream production process- the first of its kind since Lord of the Rings. (excluding Pixar)

Granted, Nolan may simply be an exceptionally gifted director, but take a second and look at some of the crap movies that Peter Jackson made in his career. The only difference between those and his Lord of the Rings trilogy is that for the latter he actually slowed down and did it right. It's one thing to make a movie, it's another entirely to make a great movie.

Taking the necessary time may be risky in the eyes of many production studios, but it does have a much better track record for producing great films compared to the traditional "best script to be barfed out inside the first week" approach.

My true opinion
It may appear, after all my criticism, that I very much dislike movies. I may dislike the direction that Hollywood has gone of late, but to say that I dislike movies would be completely false. There are a lot of films that didn't live up to the level of quality that I'm aiming for by a long shot, but I did legitimately enjoy many of them. In spite of my criticism, for example, I did enjoy the first Shrek movie; and the second to a lesser extent. (third was utter crap) and I do often go to see new films when they are released. After all, occasionally a gem will emerge that blows away my expectations.

Also, if you have talked to me personally, you would probably note that I left quite a few gripes off of this list. Most of the ones I left out are more subjective, and a matter of taste or style. I very much dislike sports movies, chick flicks, musicals, and plotless foreign films filled with senseless wire-fu. (everything must have some sort of plot in my humble opinion) There are also certain types of characters and story elements that I dislike, and I have a very extensive list of clichés that I specifically wish to avoid and poke fun at; and don't get me started on marketing. I could provide a list three times this long, actually. This also applies to television shows, as only two great shows come to my mind. Those are Farscape and Avatar: The Last Airbender. These were of particular interest to me as my story is a series. The point is that I have something very specific in mind for my story, and it adheres very strictly to the above guidelines.

I would love to see this stuff become mainstream. I would love to be able to go to the cinema and know walking in that I'm about to be treated to something special. In the meantime, I will continue my ambition with our little studio in order to make this dream a reality. To show the rest of the world that it can be done, and how to do it right.

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