A long time ago, we used to be friends…

ImageI have a long list of TV shows that finished too early for my liking. The nature of the industry is such that shows that display rare originality, strong characterisation, fully-developed worlds and compelling stories, often find themselves with the plug pulled and their narrative without a natural end.

Over the years, creators have tried to revive such shows in a variety of ways. Joss Whedon continued his short-lived Firefly as a movie and a comic series. Jericho managed to wring a second (ultimately stunted and disappointing) season out of the production company thanks to overwhelming fan support. Arrested Development makes its return later this year thanks to funding through Netflix. And now a new possible solution has been revealed as cult-favourite Veronica Mars succeeds in sourcing funding for a feature film through Kickstarter.

Kickstarter has always been an exciting propositon; what better way to fund art than by sourcing the capital upfront from the eventual consumers? Rob Thomas is one of those television creators who never seems to catch a break. Every show he has put together (including the fantastic Party Down) has been cancelled. For whatever reason, the masses don’t seem to take to his product.

But now his fans have spoken and Veronica Mars, the feisty teen detective, will live again. I remember been entirely gripped by the mystery-laden first two series of Veronica Mars, yet the third series left me a little cold. I’m not entirely convinced we need a movie, but I’m excited about what this means for television and creative media in general.

Kickstarter has been going strong for a while now and has plenty of success stories under its belt (I recently watched the first series of Video Game High School and was pleasantly surprised). Yet the Veronica Mars movie takes the possibilities to a whole new level. It raised a record-breaking $2 million and stands to become the highest-profile project the crowd-funding website has supported.

Naturally, this has lead to speculation about other moth-balled series that could be resurrected in this manner and television creators such as Joss Whedon and Bryan Fuller have weighed in with their thoughts.

This is definitely a development worth keeping an eye on – another step towards a world where consumers decide directly what is worth funding – and an interesting proposition for dedicated creators who witness their creations failing to realise their full potential.


Hollywood plays it safe

Short of the week has put together an interesting ‘info-graphic’ that clearly illustrates a trend we’ve all been aware of for years – sequels,
prequels and adaptations are ruling the box office. With every passing year, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see a big-budget film based on an original idea.

The article doesn’t pretend to critique such films – it makes no effort to discuss whether the latest Transformers film is more worthy of our attention than say, Raiders of the Lost Ark or Independence Day – it simply puts forward the evidence that our blockbuster hopefuls are increasingly less original.

Click here to take a look at the info-graphic and to read the original article.

A worrying trend

Regardless of where you think the blame may lie, I think we can all agree that it is a shame that less original material sees the light of day. Even if we love the Harry Potter series (I do) and are salivating at the thought of returning to Pandora in Avatar 2 (hmmmm…..maybe a little bit), its hard to ignore the threat – creatively speaking – that this trend poses.

Of course, blockbusters represent but a fraction of what I love about cinema, yet I gain a great deal of pleasure from seeing a big-scale, flashy summer release. All too often that pleasure is tempered by the nagging thought that what I am watching has little in the way of soul and, all too often, a mere wisp of a plot hidden behind the CGI and explosions.

I do think that these short-comings are directly linked to the fading originality of summer releases. Seriously, how can they expect us to become emotionally invested in the movie adaptation of the board game Battleships? And surely it must be  increasingly difficult for film-makers to be emotionally invested when they hold so little sway over the subject matter of the films they are creating.

Its all about the money

Of course the driving force behind these changes is money. A film that has a pre-existing audience – that are guaranteed to go and see the film – is a safer investment than a film based upon a strange and new idea. Also it seems that we increasingly expect our blockbusters to be HUGE. Budgets have ballooned to the point where a tent-pole picture is rarely produced for less than $150 million and regularly for $200 million or more.

Do you remember the outrage when $175 million was spent on Waterworld? Well, that is a fairly standard budget now for a big release. When Sam Raimi’s Spiderman was released in 2002, it cost $139 million. Now in 2012, when Marc Webb came to make The Amazing Spiderman, he somehow dropped $230 million, and no one batted an eye.

With these huge budgets becoming the norm, is it any wonder that film companies are less likely to make riskier investments? I’m not sure that a film requires such a hefty budget in order to provide the spectacle that modern audiences want. Whilst I am glad that the new Star Trek film will be as visually impressive as it will no doubt be, I wish there was some way to go back to a time when films did not cost such a huge amount to make.

Ultimately, the movie-going public like their summer blockbusters to always be bigger, louder and more special-effects driven every year. What we need is for Hollywood to to show a little more strength of character and produce some films that will not only generate a nice return for their investors, but also stand the test of time as well as entertain us for a couple of hours.

Budget information taken from the IMDB.

Youtube cinema

I spend a fair amount of my life trawling through bottomless digital ocean of Youtube, usually late at night as I wonder what I’m doing with my life that it has come to this. Naturally, I’m often drawn to videos associated with the cinematic arts.

In a new series of articles, I’ll highlight some of the more interesting clips on this subject, including documentaries on technique and interviews with worthy filmmakers. In doing so I hope to justify those endless lost hours and in some way console myself that my life has purpose, whilst at the same time guiding you through the confusing mire that is Youtube.

The Art of Film and TV Title Design

This video takes an all-too brief look at a subject I’ve had an interested in ever since I saw the opening titles to David Fincher’s Seven (and, if I’m honest, City Slickers) – the influence that an artfully put together title sequence can have on a viewers first impressions of a film.

Tippett studio tour

It’s a name I had never heard previous to first watching this video, but I was glad to get a peak into the studio of Phil Tippett, a special effects supervisor who oversaw the effects on films such as Robocop, Starship Troopers and Jurassic Park. If you are even remotely geeky about special effects, this is a fascinating watch.

New set footage from Return of the Jedi

Odd as it may seem, this footage only recently became available. Filmed by a member of the public without permission of the filmmakers, this silent footage shows the set for Jabba the Hutt’s massive ‘sail barge’ that is featured early in Return of the Jedi. I’m not a huge Star Wars fan, but the footage is interesting none-the-less.

Minnesota Nice

This classic ‘making-of documentary’ takes a look at the creation of a modern classic, Fargo. I remember it featuring on the end of the VHS video release and recall noting how much more interesting it was than most documentaries of this type.

Its a pleasure to see that those involved in creating the film were so acutely aware that they were part of something important and their thoughts and annecdotes are not superficial as is often the case in these making-ofs, they are insightful and add to the wider-discussion of one of my favourite films.

How Jurassic Park should have ended

These guys have made a series of entertaining cartoons that show how films should have ended, often addressing plot-holes and conceits that a film’s climax is dependent upon. In this, one of my favourites, the raptors not only discover how to open doors, they also manage to wrap their heads around how to operate automatic weaponary. Not that that helps them in the end.

3D or not 3D?

I’ve had to defend my dislike for 3D movies a number of times recently. Here in Vietnam, only the biggest releases generally get shown in the cinema and, more often than not, these releases are in 3D. Consequently, I have recently been exposed to 3D a number of times (Arthur Christmas, John Carter of Mars, The Lorax). Prior to this, all I had seen of this emerging new art-form were a couple of films at the IMAX that had 3D sequences in them.

Now, I’m not saying that 3D is a completely redundant technology. I’m sure that it could be carefully utilised by very experienced film makers to enhance the cinematic experience when dealing with certain appropriate topics or genres.

Though I have seen neither in 3D, I suspect that this is the case with with Martin Scorcese’s Hugo and James Cameron’s Avatar (though I’m certain that the latter’s re-release of Titanic in 3D is entirely unesseccary).

That said, it is clear to me that with the majority of releases, the 3D technology is shoe-horned in with the hope of increasing the audience’s desire to see the film in the cinema. These efforts are both a symptom and a side-effect of the industry’s increasing reliance on tent-pole pictures to prop up viewing numbers. In other words, there isn’t an artistic incentive for making films in this way.

So, apart from the ulterior motives of movie producers, what is my problem with 3D films? Well, its partially because the glasses make the picture darker, and also because I just don’t like wearing then. But, the main reason only recently dawned on me when I read an interview with director Christopher Nolan.

Here are Nolan’s thoughts in his own words:

I find stereoscopic imaging too small scale and intimate in its effect. 3-D is a misnomer. Films are 3-D. The whole point of photography is that it’s three-dimensional. The thing with stereoscopic imaging is it gives each audience member an individual perspective. It’s well suited to video games and other immersive technologies, but if you’re looking for an audience experience, stereoscopic is hard to embrace.

I prefer the big canvas, looking up at an enormous screen and at an image that feels larger than life. When you treat that stereoscopically, and we’ve tried a lot of tests, you shrink the size so the image becomes a much smaller window in front of you. So the effect of it, and the relationship of the image to the audience, has to be very carefully considered. And I feel that in the initial wave to embrace it, that wasn’t considered in the slightest.

You can read the full article with Nolan here.

I feel the same way as Nolan. The 3D image, brought down from the screen and rendered in-front of your eyes as if it were being shown just for you, takes away from the grand nature of what can be achieved on a huge cinema screen.

Take a film like John Carter of Mars, for example. I believe that it would have felt more grand and epic were the 3D taken out of the equation and the landscape and cinematography allowed to speak for themselves.

Yet it would appear that 3D is here to stay, at least for the short-term. I’m sure that the occasional film will come out that takes advantage of the technology and successfully enhances the cinema-going experience (click here to read about some films that Paste Magazine is looking forward to). There is no concensus on whether 3D films are tailing off in popularity (some think they are and some think they aren’t). But I for one remain skeptical as to the reasons the technology is being employed and whether it genuinely enhances our enjoyment of going to the movies.

Well, it ain’t no Terminator 2…

I suppose this news has been coming now for a while now, but it still stings. James Cameron directed two of my earliest film obsessions, Terminator 2 and Aliens. Recent years have seen his directorial output slow as he has shifted his focus to documentaries that an area he is particularly interested in, underwater exploration. In fact, the only feature film (that he has directed) since Titanic back in 1997 has been Avatar.

In a recent newspaper interview (click here to check it out), Cameron clearly stated that the remainder of his career would be focussed on documentaries and the continuation of the Avatar universe, as he develops and directs parts two and three and possibly even part four. He is quoted as saying:

‘[The] point is I think within the “Avatar” landscape I can say everything I need to say that I think needs to be said, in terms of the state of the world and what I think we need to be doing about it. And doing it in an entertaining way.’

Now I enjoyed Avatar for what it was, an ambitious yet fairly straight-forward science-ficton movie, with some stunning effects and some great action, but not much else. Aspects such as story, characterisation and plotting fall short and certainly don’t live up to the directors previous efforts (which, of course, I also recognise were largely action-driven eye-fodder, but at least the stories were compelling). I think it is a big claim to suggest that the film (and future incarnations) might provide a platform for social commentary. If they do, its unsubtle commentary that lacks any kind of depth.

Yet I’m not suggesting that we are losing one of our cinematic social commentators here, just that it is a shame that the man who gave us some movie classics in the eighties and nineties, has decided to limit himself to such a shallow franchise (I have not seen his documentaries, though I am sure they are worthwhile). While he will no doubt continue to add more to the movie industry, in terms of the advancement of technology and the setting of new benchmarks in special effects, it would seem that it is now certain he won’t be making any more movie classics. And since his last film that I genuinely enjoyed was True Lies way back in 1992, perhaps this isn’t the end of the world.

Louis CK

I’ve been following Louis CK’s career with some interest ever since he first popped onto my radar a few years ago. I had never heard of CK before seeing him on the TV show Parks and Recreation, despite his first HBO special airing way back in 1996. It has taken CK a while to find a wider-audience, largely due to his unflinching dedication to carving out the career he wants.

ImageBefore we discuss any of his personal achievements it should be said that first and foremost, CK is just plain hilarious. I cannot think of another comic of the last five years who has made me laugh as repeadedly and consistently as Louis. His material is painfully self-depricating, to the point where I sometimes worry how his honesty affects his personal life (what will his girls think when they are old enough to be exposed to his rants?). During his standup shows he can often appear quite angry, sometimes at those around him, but more frequently at himself. Yet in interviews he comes across as personable and content with his life.

This character that he has created, this ‘likeable loser’, has translated from his standup to his TV show, Louis (and its predecessor, Lucky Louis). Louis was (and is) a significant success for CK. Made on a budget small enough to allow CK to retain complete creative control, it is unlike anything before seen on television. Its funny and frequently poignant, yet the most exciting thing about it is that it is getting made at all.

The unprecedented creative freedom that CK retains has allowed him to create the show he wanted. Sometimes it is funny, sometimes it is sad and sometimes it is just plain weird. Yet somehow it all fits into a framework that few would have bet money on being critically successful. If CK had had to justify every single thing that happens during Louis (for instance, a young Louis being forced to sit through a graphic explanation of just exactly how Jesus suffered on the cross), the show would likely not be as great as it is.

Which bring us to what is perhaps Louis’ most exciting (and closely followed) success. For his latest standup special – Live at the Beacon Theatre – CK decided to forego all traditional distribution routes (DVD release and TV broadcast) to distribute independently online. While he may not be the first artist to attempt self-promotion in this way (Richard Herring, who has been self-distributing his own DVDs for years, springs to mind), he is certainly the first of his stature to attempt this and succeed so completely.

Within twelve days of releasing the new show, CK had made over $1,000,000 dollars. If you visit the show’s website (https://buy.louisck.net/news) you can see how he has spent that money. Its great to see that he has picked up on how important many people (myself included) consider his latest success. Live at the Beacon Theatre was released DRM (digital rights management) free, meaning that once you buy it, you can do with it what you wish. Yet he has still made plenty of money.

This should be treated as a shot across the bow for traditional media distributers and the big dogs of digital distribution (yes, Apple, I’m looking at you). If CK had decided to take an easier route and distribute through iTunes, for example, the chances are we would have had to pay at least double and would have been restricted to playing the show on the computer we used to purchase it. Yet Louis has shown us – and hopefully other artists – that you can dispense with all the uneccessary infrastructure, charge a reasonable amount of money (five dollars) and still make a tidy profit.

In an ideal world, what Louis has done here will become the standard way for media to be distributed, but we can at least hope that CK and artists like him can work outside the system, and perhaps even force that system to evolve over time.