In 2001, I wrote the below piece, “X-Women and Hollow Men”, for The Hollywood Reporter, about the explosion of female action heroes at the turn of the 21st century. I post it again here because it’s not available elsewhere online and to add to the discussion of the future of the female action hero. See Social Creature’s post, for example: The Next 21st Centry Superhero Will Be A Chick.
When the article was written, I was convinced we were on the verge of seeing a new generation of female heroes. The first decade of the 21st century, of course, marked a radical shift to a revolutionary conservatism that embraced hierarchy, violence, and a dismantling of law that has always shoved women into the background as property or, at best, as a type of technology for keeping the social structure intact.
I write female heroes, so this issue is important to me. And I have a four year old girl. I want to write a hero for my daughter to be inspired by that’s not just a boy put into a girl’s body. We can be deceived into thinking we’re seeing female heroes – onscreen and in print – and in real life too – when in fact we’re just seeing women playing the parts of men, and receiving great rewards for it. Kathryn Bigelow winning the Best Director Academy Award for “The Hurt Locker”, a movie just as easily made by Ridley Scott or Jerry Bruckheimer, is as clear an indicator of where we are as anything. Jane Campion or Julie Taymor are just not going to win Best Director. Not in this decade anyway. It is a man’s world. The game of success, whether in the entertainment industry or international poltics, is played according to masculine rules and there doesn’t seem to be too much getting around that for the time being. That global cultural truth affects then what stories we will hear. And it seems now to be resulting in that old chestnut of the female action hero who when you get to the heart of it, really is teenage boy’s transgender fantasy.
So here’s the Reporter piece, in full. Have things changed since 2001?
“Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.” So said John Wayne, epitome of the tough, indomitable Hollywood hero, over fifty years ago. It might have been the rallying cry of the action hero of this past year. The difference being that the new icons of unapologetic toughness are not cowboys or cavalry captains, they are women.
Past decades have given us female action stars, but only sporadically, and when women in movies have had physical prowess equal to a man’s, they have always had to sacrifice something for it. The Bond films have for 35 years featured dangerous female characters–Elektra King (Sophie Marceau), Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), May Day (Grace Jones), all the way back to spike-toed Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya). Each one gave the tuxedoed spy a run for his money, and each one was required to die before fade out–usually while suffering a wry Bond quip. Bond kept the power, the women were only borrowing it. Likewise, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and Linda Hunt’s Sarah Connor were icons of level-headedness and determination, but at the price of being outcasts, the only sane figures in disintegrating worlds. Female actors have always been prepared and equipped to bring the formidable roles to the screen, but either the audience or the industry–or both–have not.
But in 1999, a leather-clad Carrie Ann Moss, as Trinity, leapt into the air and defied gravity in the opening sequence of “The Matrix”. When she finally landed, kicking the asses of several men in the process, there was nothing in the movies that a guy could do that a girl could not. Trinity was a character equal in all respects to the male hero. More importantly, the film felt no need to explain why she was so or to apologize for it. Neither did the audience. The floodgates opened and the year 2000 has brought a plethora of films featuring physically powerful and unapologetically dangerous women.
One of the first, and most unlikely, films to bring us a new breed of female action star was “Chicken Run” with a cast that was virtually all-female–as well as all-chicken and all-clay. The stop-motion action-adventure of barnyard hens trying to escape becoming chicken pot pies was a feminist remake of that most masculine of WWII classics, “The Great Escape”. Julia Sawahla, Jane Horrocks, and Miranda Richardson, who lent their voices to the film’s principle characters, are all alumnae of the British comedy hit “Absolutely Fabulous”, which set its own feminist standard by celebrating female disfunction as enthusiastically as “Chicken Run” did female adroitness.
Unlike “The Great Escape”, “Chicken Run” allowed some sexual equity by providing three male characters–Mrs. Tweedy’s ineffectual husband, subservient to her that we assume he’s Mrs. Tweedy’s farm hand for the first half of the movie. The second is an old war hero Rooster, lost in memories–or delusions–of past glory. The third–token male romantic lead and token American–is Rocky Rhodes who is a coward and scam artist, played by Mel Gibson at his irresponsible, mercurial best. With feminine support, these men are dragged kicking and screaming into mature action and manage not to disgrace themselves too thoroughly.
“Charlie’s Angels”, an action film about women, by women, and for everybody, has a knockout opening tracking shot that sums up the new place of women in the movies. Moving through a crowded airliner, we are shown the gamut of female roles–a mother, a nun, a little girl, a woman leading a boyfriend into the lavoratory for an encounter, etc. We finally come to rest on a bad-ass L.L. Cool J, who, we learn, is also a woman–the Angel Dylan (Drew Barrymore) in disguise. “Charlie’s Angels” says 1. “A woman can be anything she wants,” and 2. “If you aren’t a girl, you can’t play this game.”
One of the masterstrokes of “Charlie’s Angels” is the casting of its men, which further underscores the power of the three female leads. The male leads are devoid of any macho mythology. Tim Curry is, after all, the world’s most famous transvestite, and Bill Murray played gay performer Bunny Breckinridge in “Ed Wood”. Crispin Glover gave the world Marty McFly’s ineffectual pop in “Back to the Future” and Andy Warhol in “The Doors”. Tom Green is irrepressible in his determination to look like an idiot at all costs. It was precisely this type of casting that let audiences be a part of the game of “Charlie’s Angels”, making it one of the highest grossers of the year. Men enjoyed the joke as much as women. The audience is not just willing to see a world where women take power, they will not settle for less.
In “X-Men”, the dark sister-film of “Charlie’s Angels”, women match the men super-power for super-power and then some. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the terrifying embodiment of masculine rage is presented with a partner in Rogue (Anna Paquin) who, though a mere girl, is equally, perhaps even more dangerous. As in “Charlie’s Angels”, the men are crippled, their power unstable. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) may be the mastermind, but he is also bound to a wheelchair, and his nemesis Magneto (Sir Ian McKellan) is brilliant, but twisted by hate. Cyclops (James Marsden), in ruby-quartz glasses day or night, gives the impression of a blind man, and Wolverine is an alcoholic, and bad guy Sabretooth (Tyler Mane) is a pre-verbal barbarian. The X-Women have no such handicaps. Jane Gray (Famke Janssen) has intelligence and the power to move matter, Storm (Halle Berry) is the power of nature, and Rogue steals power from those who would lay a hand on her–which in terms of the story, are men. Shapeshifter Mystique (Rebecca Romijin-Stamos) not only refuses to behave like a nice girl, she can, literally, be whoever she wants to be. With it’s most powerful male in a wheelchair, and it’s most powerful female still a teen, the “X-Men” paints a world of men on the way down, while their female counterparts are just getting started.
While the woman-warrior is new to Hollywood movies, in Asia she has been a staple for decades. Since the 1960s Chinese martial arts films have allowed women to retain grace and beauty and while giving them the ability to vanquish scores of foes, male or female, single-handedly. Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” reveals a new world of female action characters by revisiting something very old. “Crouching Tiger” is an entirely female action movie, an epic adventure about a brilliant young woman fighter who seeks greater power by stealing a magical sword. This young genius, Jen (Ziyi Zhang), is caught between the friendship of master swordswoman Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and the evil influence of the witch Jade Fox (played by Chinese action diva Pei-pei Cheng). The two males in the story are essentially supporting characters. One is the love interest, a young warrior who falls for Jen because of her martial prowess. The other is the martial arts master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) whose new dedication to a spiritual life keeps him remote from the central action. The women in “Crouching Tiger” are center the story, and the battles they fight are among the most thrilling ever filmed.
Even a year ago, the prevaling wisdom was that it was difficult for women to carry an entire picture. This year, they seem to have carried most of them single-handedly. In Rod Lurie’s political drama, “The Contender”, Senator Laine (Joan Allen) will not dignify with a response the accusations of the men trying to destroy her reputation. She refuses to play by any rules but her own. Women may not yet feel so empowered in the real world, but perhaps the new brand of movie hero will give them a start.
Next month, London will host two key media industry conferences – the venerable London Book Fair and the second outing of Transmedia Next. Storytelling professionals happy to stay in the world of business-as-usual will be attending the London Book Fair. But those who have discovered that business-as-usual doesn’t cut it in the 21st century – who want to stay at the cutting edge of media production – those people will be hitting Transmedia Next.
Transmedia Next is a three-day series of seminars, workshops and exercises aimed at training storytelling professionals in the theory and practice of transmedia storytelling. It is hosted by Seize The Media, with the support of the EU MEDIA Programme. Lance Weiler, Seize The Media’s creative director and chief story architect, unnerved attendees of the Sundance Film Festival with the short film his short film “Pandemic 41.410806, -75.654259”. The film played in conjunction with a transmedia experience accessible to people on the streets of Park City too, and the Sundance crowd got a peek into Weiler’s compelling and intricate storyworld, “Pandemic 1.0” (www.hopeismissing.com).
Lance Weiler’s Pandemic 1.0 short film, shown at Sundance
I spoke with Anita Ondine, transmedia producer and CEO of Seize The Media about transmedia and Transmedia Next. Anita is passionate about educating creatives and producers in the method and vocabulary of transmedia production. She grew up in Australia surrounded by artists and creatives. Her later years took her to law school and then to a series of positions tackling legal issues of technology and intellectual property for major firms. She was a Senior VP at Lehman Brothers in London until 2006 when she decided to pursue filmmaking full time. For her, the transition from finance to film was perfectly natural. She has always been a storyteller, a communicator, and her practical experience in the no-nonsense arena of The City gave her the perfect toolkit to becoming a 21st century producer.
The term “transmedia” is thrown around with ever-increasing frequency, but surprisingly few people, even those in the media industries, have a solid grasp of what it exactly is. “Transmedia” is often confused the old-school term, “multi-media”. Multi-media is the presentation of a story in multiple formats – often repeating the same story in a book version, then a film version, then a game version, etc. Ondine explains that transmedia is a type of storytelling in which the story exists independently of the media used to present it. The story exists before and beyond its appearance in a specific form and each media experience is a limited window onto that larger story. “There are gaps in the storytelling,” Ondine says, “where the audience – or participants as I like to call them – fill in their own experience, through their own imaginations or by supplying content themselves or by actually physically taking part in the story.”
Anita Ondine, Transmedia Producer
Lance Weiler’s “Pandemic” short, which Ondine produced, is only one viewpoint into the Pandemic storyworld. An web of online and real-world content, carefully architected, allows participants to interact with the Pandemic 1.0 storyworld in a variety of ways. It is that careful structuring of the storyworld parameters – its characters, timeline, rules, narrative style – and the orchestrating of the venues by which participants can access it that makes transmedia such a challenging and exciting storytelling arena.
Developing a transmedia storyworld requires forethought and vision. The development and production of a computer game might be a comparable endeavour, but a highly complex transmedia story might have a computer game embedded in it as only one of the numerous experiences available to the participant. And how each of these different experiences interacts with each other and with the ever-evolving participant can be unpredictable. In a transmedia experience, the participants or audience might begin contributing more to the story, changing things in real time, introducing complications and story twists of their own. The story architects must be meticulous in their preparation of the underlying narrative and technological structures supporting the storyworld. Transmedia Next emphasises the preproduction of a transmedia story is as important as the storytelling itself. Though some of the well-tested workflows of 20th century media production still apply, new ways of building a story and offering it to an audience have had to be introduced, often through an R&D process that continues beyond deployment of the story. The world of transmedia storytelling is still in its infancy, a “Wild West” where methods and techniques are still being pioneered and experimentation is the name of the game.
Transmedia Next is a gathering of professionals who already have a solid grounding in their own creative arenas – design, writing, finance, production, and this is one of its features that most excites Anita Ondine. The conversation that develops among these gathered professionals can be as enlightening as the seminars themselves. Transmedia Next participants are reminded that they are as vital a part of the learning process as Ondine and the rest of the seminar leaders. Characteristic of a transmedia experience, attendees move out of the realm of passive observer to active participant, discovering insights and methods that a single artist might have never arrived at on his or her own.
Ondine is eager to help people discover how transmedia stories can both creatively financed and produce profits. Because transmedia has such a wide reach in terms of the demographic of its participants, as well as a variety of venues in which it might be encountered, it has a potential for many different kinds of revenue streams. Typical of the digital age, revenue generated by transmedia projects tends to be non-linear with multiple types of revenue potential, from the old media model of volume and unit selling to a whole salad of options including subscriptions, sponsorship, ad sales, and franchises. Ondine says, “Transmedia is about the experience. That’s what makes it unique. You’re not restricted to moving units. The income can come from selling experiences.” And certainly, there is no limit to what can be experienced. The transmedia income model calls for as much creative vision as the transmedia story architecture.
This year’s Transmedia Next will again feature Anita Ondine and Lance Weiler. Joining them again this year will be Inga von Staden, Berlin-based media architect, educator for 21st century media creatives. She has published and lectured widely on technology-enhanced media and brings an intellectual rigor and years of experience to the seminars. New on the Transmedia Next team this year is Jonathan Marshall, who has been a lead technical strategist for the BBC’s interactive TV initiatives and is CTO of Social Television at SlipStream. His work for the BBC also won him a BAFTA.
Transmedia Next takes place 12th – 14th April, 2011 in London. For more information go to TransmediaNext.com or email sam [at] transmedianext.com.
I’m on my way now to the third and final day of the Transmedia Next Training For Media Professionals, where the Pickfords, Chaplins, Fairbankses and Griffithses of the 21st century are gobbling up inspiration and information from the likes of Lance Weiler, David Beard, Inga von Staden, and Anita Ondine.
Officially, I’m attending the Transmedia Next training as a journalist – but that’s just my avatar. As you know, I create other worlds when I’m not writing about this one – and sometimes even get paid for it. I missed Transmedia Next day one, but yesterday was enough to soak me through with new ideas. My pulse rate literally accelerates when I hear the hows & whys of full spectrum storytelling. Really. I get all flushed and sweaty.
“Transmedia” seems to be the designation we’re going to use for this 21st century storytelling, where the divisions between book and film and game and app and any other media-centric experience you can think of can become almost infinitely blurred. But I do like the expression “full-spectrum media” too. I don’t know where I first heard it. Maybe I just made it up. The US military has openly sought “full-spectrum dominance” of all possible combat spaces. Now, storytellers and artists must stake a claim to their own limitless arena. It’s exciting to recall that a spectrum is absurdly larger than the puny ROYGBIV of visible colors. It extends endlessly to the left and right and contains colors we can, right now, only barely imagine.
One of my key functions now – as a “transmedia storyteller” – is to do my best to push into the infrared and the ultraviolet of our current transmedia spectrum, extending the range of vision so the generation after us – the real transmedia artists – the Jean Renoirs and David Leans and Orson Welleses – will be in a position to see a little further.
(this article originally appeared at screenwriting
website Twelvepoint.com, March 2010)
I always pat myself on the back for having written a great scene, but writing a great scene doesn’t help you tell a great story any more than getting a great shot helps you make a great film. What makes a shot “great” is what’s on either side of it, its relationship to the larger assemblage of shots. What makes a scene great is how it plays against the scenes before and after it. A scene, no matter how I feel about it, is only useful insofar as it contributes to a larger whole, and that whole is its big brother, the ‘sequence’.
If you’ve never heard of sequences and are now feeling a bit disoriented in the story anatomy hierarchy, just remember: shots make up scenes; scenes make up sequences; sequences make up acts and acts, as we all know, make up movies.
Of all those building blocks, I would argue that it’s the sequence, not the scene or the revered act, which is the most important one in the screenwriter’s toolkit, and the one he or she must come to understand completely and intuitively. Yet sequences are not well understood by most writers, beyond a vague sense that a sequence is a few scenes stitched together for some kind of common purpose.
What’s a good definition of a sequence? Here’s mine: A sequence is a unit of story structure composed of a series of scenes with a coherent dramatic spine. It begins when a character is placed in a state of uncertainty or imbalance – i.e., when the hero has a big problem. It ends when that problem is resolved and – and here’s the key – the solution to that problem creates another, further problem that then begins a new sequence.
So a sequence begins when a character is confronted with a crisis – and a crisis is any situation in which you can’t say, ‘Let’s just forget the whole thing’ – and it concludes when that crisis is resolved in favour of a new crisis. When a sequence completely resolves or eliminates the central problem that began the whole story, then the movie is over.
A master storyteller is one who leads us to believe that each sequence will be the one that will finally resolve or defuse the main conflict of the story, that will solve all the character’s problems, and then surprises us, frustrates us, thrills us, by delivering the complete opposite: an even greater complication that draws us into a new sequence.
Each sequence has a beginning, a middle and an end. Or to frame it in writer’s language, an inciting incident, a rising action and a climax. You can even think of each sequence as having its own mini-story arc. LA-based screenwriting teacher, Chris Soth, calls his seminars on sequence structure, the ‘mini-movie method’ and encourages students to treat each sequence as if it were a short movie unto itself – not a bad suggestion if you don’t take it too literally.
Some screenwriters will construct a ‘beat sheet’, a kind of outline, for their scripts and often what they’re doing, though most amateur writers wouldn’t think of it in this way, is flailing around in the dark trying to find what the sequences are.
When there are troubles with a screenplay’s act structure, the real fault can often be found in its sequence structure. In my own writing, when the story feels adrift and vague – or when Act II just isn’t working – the cause is almost always a lack of clarity in the sequences that make up the film. I run into the trap of overconcentrating on individual scenes, stringing them together like a child’s bead project, without noting how they contribute to making up a larger sequence, and time and time again I have to look at the bigger picture.
Many screenwriters who are aware of and consciously manage sequence structure in their work have been influenced by the teachings of Frantisek ‘Frank’ Daniel who was Dean of the School Of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California in the late 1980s. This is where I learned about sequence structure, alongside many other media creatives whose names are more familiar to you than mine. Frank Daniel delighted packed lecture halls with his analyses of a wide range of films in terms of their sequence structures and many of us undergraduates would sneak into the back of his graduate level courses in order to learn something we knew was invaluable for our craft.
Frank insisted that every complete film story has exactly eight sequences, usually two sequences in the first act, four in the second, and two in the third act. Some say the origin of this eight-sequence template is the division of early feature length movies into reels, physical reels of film, usually around ten minutes long. Reels, typically with two projectors operating side by side, would have to be switched during a showing, and writing films in ten-minute, cohesive sequences then helped keep each dramatic beat of the story contained within its own reel. I have my doubts about this. I tend to think it worked the other way around. I think the reason a ten-minute reel was used in the first place was becausse that was – due to some mysterious quirk of the human emotional makeup – a satisfying length for a single dramatic beat to be introduced and progress to a climax. I believe the storytelling element came first and the technology followed.
I do not have the courage to say that every feature film always has eight sequences, although Frank Daniel used to amaze us by somehow making every film fit the structure. Sticking to a strict eight-sequence feature film model though can be very helpful in trouble-shooting. It encourages us to look more deeply when a story appears to have too few sequences, or to compress or cut when confronted by a plethora of sequences. The world is not literally divided into lines of latitude and longitude but it helps to pretend that it is.
Generally speaking, the better written a movie is, the clearer its sequence structure will be, and vice versa, the clearer your sequence structure is, the better your story will probably be. Films dominated by strong physical action, adventure movies and musicals, tend to have a more transparent sequence structure and lend themselves to easier analysis. Both action movies and musicals will often have set pieces at the climax of each sequence.
Solid sequences and the writer’s facility with them are what make some three-hour movies seem to fly by and some 80-minute movies last eons. Dances with Wolves (1990) is the second longest movie to win the Best Picture Oscar yet it flies by largely because of its rock-solid sequences, each with a clearly-defined tension that leads into the next sequence. On the other side of the coin, loose or vague sequence structure is usually to blame in that bizarre, yet frequent, phenomenon of a movie that is packed with action but is utterly boring and exhausting.
Ask a friend to list their favorite movies and you’ll get a diverse set of responses but it’s a good bet that most of the choices will have in common clear, strong sequence structure, and the very best will have sequences that keep surprising us and keep us guessing, and play in contrast or in sympathy with each other like find symphonic music.
I am an on again/off again David Lynch fan. I can never make up my mind whether I love his work or not. One thing that keeps me coming back though is his solid sequence structure. I may not like what he’s doing on the screen all the time but it’s always presented in a structurally rock-solid, coherent way if you look at the skeleton under the strange and fearsome flesh he puts on top of it. Imagine my surprise – lack of surprise, it should be – to learn when researching this article that David Lynch was a devoted student of Frank Daniel.
How a story is dissected into sequences may depend very much on the analyst’s point of view. Like an isolated, non-technical civilisation that doesn’t distinguish yellow from orange, for example, one analyst might see one large sequence where another sees two shorter sequences.
I’ve included below a simplified outline of the sequence structure of Star Wars: Episode IV (1977), indicating the problem that begins each sequence, and the resolution that ends it and launches us into the next sequence. You might disagree with my breakdown, which is good. Do your own analyses of as many films as you can and don’t worry too much about trying to force a movie into eight sequences. The key is to locate exactly where each new dramatic tension begins, note how the character tries to solve that tension, and then to find exactly where that tension is replaced by a new one.
STAR WARS 8 SEQUENCE BREAKDOWN
Problem: The Empire is about to retrieve the Death Star plans, capture the Princess and send R2D2 and C3PO to the spice mines of Kessel – in short, the movie is about to be over.
Complicated by: the droids are captured by Jawas.
Resolution: The droids find safety with Owen Lars and his nephew Luke.
Problem: Luke find a mysterious message from an important person begging for help from someone he might know.
Complicated by: R2D2 runs away.
Resolution: Luke decides to go with Ben Kenobi to Alderaan.
Problem: Luke and Ben have to find a way to get to Alderaan at Mos Eisley Spaceport.
Complicated by: Imperial forces are searching the city for them.
Resolution: The Millennium Falcon escapes Mos Eisley and heads for Alderaan.
Problem: Fly the droids and the plans safely to Alderaan.
Complicated by: Alderaan is destroyed.
Resolution: Our heroes are captured by the Death Star.
Problem: They discover the Princess is aboard the Death Star.
Complicated by: The Princess is scheduled to be terminated.
Resolution: The Princess is rescued.
Problem: They must take the most important person in the galaxy to safety, starting from the bottom of a garbage masher.
Complicated by: Legions of single-minded fanatics are trying to kill them.
Resolution: They escape the Death Star and the Death Star’s sentry ships.
Problem: The Death star is following the heroes to the Rebel Base.
Complicated by: Han is abandoning them.
Resolution: Luke and the rebels fly out to destroy the Death Star.
Problem: The Death Star is going to destroy the Rebel Base and end the rebellion forever.
Complicated by: Darth Vader engages the rebel pilots in his own ship.
Resolution: Luke destroys the Death Star and becomes the hero of the galaxy.
I’ve been all antsy to tell you, but I was advised to wait for just the right time – April Fool’s Day.
Blake Friedmann Literary, TV & Film Agency Ltd., located “in the heart of London’s Fashionable Camden Town etc.” already represents some superb writing and directing talent, and some stunning fiction authors too. Agency cofounder Julian Friedmann (Twitter: @julianfriedmann ) also manages Twelvepoint.com, formerly Scriptwriter Magazine, one of the world’s premiere screenwriting resources. Co-cofounder Carole Blake (Twitter: @caroleagent ) reps too many great book authors to list. Okay, here’s a list. I’m very proud, and humbled, to be brought onboard.
Conrad is the first agent I’ve had on this side of the pond, and I’m looking forward to finally taking meetings with all you self-important philistines who haven’t been returning my phone calls. Ha ha. Just kidding. I wouldn’t meet with you if you were the last producers on Earth – or, you know, depending on what we can negotiate. Seriously, can I have a job?
I’d like to inform all past representatives and advisory staff – agents and lawyers and accountants and masseuses and centurions and those weird pale guys with the hats who are talking to the Emperor in Return Of The Jedi (1983) – that I couldn’t not have done it without both your helps. And that I’m deeply proud of the sweet music we made together in Hollywood in the back of that van. Furthermore I intend to prosecute.
I can always be contacted here on the site, but if you’re intimidated by my stunning sexiness and facility with transsmedia wordism constructitude – and many quite are – Conrad Williams is your man:
Blake Friedmann Literary, Film & TV Agency
122 Arlington Road
London NW1 7HP
Telephone: 020 7284 0408
info [at] blakefriedmann.co.uk
Saw James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009) yesterday afternoon in 3D at the Shepherd’s Bush VUE Cinemas in London. Went with my Dad who has seen more movies than I am ever likely to see, including the 3D masterpiece, “Bwana Devil” (1952).
One of my first thoughts was: Now I know what the Act III of “Return Of The Jedi” (1983) should have looked like.
“Avatar” isn’t Jim Cameron’s best movie. That honour still goes to “Aliens” (1986), as beautifully plotted an action movie as there has ever been. A respectable horror movie too, but it is primarily an action movie. Still, I really found “Avatar” exquisitely beautiful in its design and execution.
Already I’m getting flack from Film World Colleagues, who thought the movie ham-fisted. Where I saw delightful design choices, they saw lipstick on a pig.
The fact that there is nothing new in its premise – that “Avatar” is “Dances With Wolves” (1990) / “Little Big Man” (1970) / “Lawrence Of Arabia” ?? (1962) / “Fill In The Blank” In Space – seems a weak criticism of the movie, though it’s been trotted out a lot over the past couple weeks.
Native American actor & Vietnam vet, (far left) leads a Pawnee raiding party in Dances With Wolves. He played Eytukan in Avatar
Cameron has deliberately kept the story simple, obvious even, to provide a solid framework on which he can hang all his beautiful decoration. To get clever with both design and story at the same time could invite Unmanageability – the bane of Cameron’s existence. Cameron has always kept his plots and characters very simple, virtually mechanical in their efficiency. When he has tried to reach for more complex and subtle (relatively) themes and plotting, the movies have suffered. And, recalling the tales told about the production of Cameron’s two “wettest” movies, “The Abyss” and “Titanic”, his crews have suffered too. For Cameron, “Keep it simple” is a mantra that leads to success.
The story structure in “Avatar” is really quite adroit – solid and simple. As any good writer will tell you, “solid and simple” is actually hard to pull off, because false notes – and there are some in “Avatar” – stick out like signalling antennae on an alien lifeform.
The movie has a skeleton of very simple, rock-solid sequences – like its cousin “Dances With Wolves”. “Dances”, one of the longest movies to ever win a Best Picture Academy Award, flies by for most people because it is constructed of straightforward, firmly constructed sequences. Knowing where the story is going – having “seen it before” – carries the audience along. We are always anticipating the next beat. We know what is supposed to happen next, more or less, but we don’t know exactly how it will be presented. And that is the way expert storytellers do it – just ask Hitchcock.
Oh, and Cameron stole the entire “Avatar” idea from me. I wrote, in high school, a story of a race of simple blue-skinned aliens who lived on a jungle world. A human male is drawn into defending them from a highly technological man-machine who wants to take the blue-skinned guys’ precious, sacred mineral.
Naturally, I plan to sue.
Of course, I ripped off – and still do – all the other sci-fi writers I knew and loved. “Avatar” is a conservatively plotted, “classic sci-fi” story, in the vein of one of the Heinlein or Asimov books. It absorbs all the flavours and styles that those great 20th century sci-fi authors – and their hundreds of imitators – spun and then sings it back in Cameron’s voice. Just as I did in my own voice via my high school “Avatar” precursor.
We are in an age of illustration in movies – and we have Peter Jackson to thank/blame for it. The goal in so many big studio movie adaptations is not to bring new insight to a story or a franchise, but to illustrate an existing property faithfully. Peter Jackson’s stunning success rested on giving audiences exactly the “Lord Of The Rings” that they had imagined – plus a bit more. A lot of people – well, myself anyway – watched the “Lord Of The Rings” movies thinking, “Wow. If I had a bit more imagination, then that is exactly how I would have imagined it.” In other movies, the source material has been so sacred that barely a word or beat is changed in the film adaptation – “300″ and “Sin City”. I think “Avatar” follows in this tradition, illustrating a sci-fi story already existing in the back of our collective imaginations. Dragon riders, floating mountains, glowing forests with trees the size of skyscrapers – we all know bits and pieces of these from books and wall calendars and dreams. It’s as if Cameron has supplied the movie to a story we had known about all along.
There’s much more to say about “Avatar”. For one, its political stance is fascinating to me. It’s a major studio movie by a major studio director that takes an aggressively anti-neocon POV. Very unusual.
But I’d like to hear your comments, then we can get into some discussion.
The BBC’s South Pacific – 1000 Islands, 1000 Challenges
(as printed in the July 2009
edition of TVBEurope)
Tanna Volcano in Vanuatu, South Pacific
“South Pacific” (2009) is the latest attempt by the BBC documentary team to break all previous records. The six-part series is the first to present a thorough study of a part of the world that is still relatively unexplored.
TVBEurope spoke with veteran BBC producer Huw Cordey about the production of the series. Cordey has been involved in many of the BBC’s landmark wildlife shows. He was a segment producer on “Planet Earth” (2006) and “The Life of Mammals” (2002), but “South Pacific” is his first time as producer of an entire series.
The remit of the series, narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch, was potentially as wide-reaching as the location itself. Even as broad in scope as “Planet Earth” is, it is still a definable location, but before beginning production on the series, the very definition of “South Pacific” was open to debate. “The most obvious definition,” Cordey says, “is everything in the Pacific that’s south of the equator. But that was too narrow for the series because we wanted to look at it in terms of the cultural and natural history aspects, and these things don’t always respect invisible lines like the boundary of the equator. Covering Hawaii, which is well above the equator, was entirely appropriate. It was colonized by Polynesians from the south and the animal and plant species that arrived there were carried by the same natural forces that populated the rest of the islands.”
With so many locations to choose from, literally tens of thousands of islands, over such a vast area – all the seven continents could be put inside the Pacific Ocean with room to spare – production planning had to be meticulous. Islands large enough and flat enough to feature a grass airstrip were reached by plane, but a lot of crew and equipment travel was exclusively by boat.
The series also had the challenge that very little scientific work has been done on most of the islands. Scientists simply have not gotten around to fully exploring the Solomon Islands or the island of Vanuatu.
Huw Cordey is extraordinarily well travelled. His father worked for Shell and Cordey had been all over the world long before he began his career with the BBC documentary team, yet even he was stunned by how remote the locations were. “A great portion of our locations I had never even heard of.”
The first episode of the series features the idyllic island community of Anuta. Half a square mile in area, with no harbour, and surrounded by reefs and fast current, Anuta Island is accessible only by a carefully piloted boat. From a remote port in the Solomon Islands, it took the production’s yacht – owned and piloted by the team’s cameraman – five days to get to Anuta. Cordey and his crew were dropped off, and with no place at Anuta to anchor, the yacht had to sail away to a nearby port – 75 miles away. The “South Pacific” crew were the first visitors to Anuta in two years. The previous visitors were the crew of the BBC programme “Tribe”. Cordey and his crew had an experience usually thought of as belonging to another century: “The Anutans had gotten wind of our coming only a day before our arrival because they have a VHF radio on the island which they use to communicate with a few Anutans living on the Solomon Islands.”
Filming an Oceanic Whitetip Shark, Hawaii
Surprising television audiences is never easy today, especially when the BBC has set such consistently high bars for itself. “When you’re talking about landmark television, you generally have to do two things. You either have to improve upon sequences that have been done before – either with technology or by showing better animal behaviour. Or you surprise people with something completely new. In some ways it was easy to surprise the audience because so much of it was unfamiliar.”
Varicams were used throughout the series – including the underwater sequences – with four kits shared between the crews of the six episodes. A relatively small number of cameramen were employed to cover the entire series. Having a smaller pool of photographers was more cost effective, and simplified production in not having to reinvent the wheel every time a new cameraman was introduced to the production.
“South Pacific” features all the technical sophistication of its BBC antecedents – and more. The Cineflex camera stabilization mount was used on helicopter shots, the same technology famously employed on “Planet Earth”. Cineflex mounts were rigged onto the helicopters of the obliging Chilean navy, for flights over Easter Island, a Chilean protectorate. The series features the first ever HD aerial shots of Easter Island and its foreboding statues.
Of course, the series features technical innovations used for the first time on nature TV shoots. Even before the series premiere, much buzz had been generated by online video of surfing legend Dylan Longbottom riding waves in super slow motion off the island of Pohnpei. The shots also feature the first slow motion footage showing the details and vortices of massive waves as they form and break. The images are both hypnotising and breathtaking.
Cameraman Bali Strickland with TyphoonHD4
This super slow motion footage was captured by the TyphoonHD4 camera. Like the Photron camera used on “Planet Earth” to shoot South Africa’s breaching great white sharks, the TyphoonHD4 records continuously to a hard drive cache, at extreme shutter speeds. The TyphoonHD4 is able to retain full HD resolution up to 1000fps. Its light sensitivity – essential for underwater shooting – was what made it Cordey’s choice.
Dr. Rudolf Diesel, the German mind behind the system, was asked to designed a waterproof housing for the camera’s first foray under the sea. The unit would be making its debut in big surf, with a reef two meters below, and would need to be manageable by a single, swimming operator. Diesel, both an engineer and an expert in marine biology, was literally adjusting the camera housing until minutes before shooting.
Bali Strickland, a 29 year old Australian who has shot some of the world’s greatest surfers and greatest surfing footage, operated the TyphoonHD4. In partnership with Dylan Longbottom, he wrestled twelve foot waves and the massive camera housing, and managed to capture some of the series’ signature shots.
Even Strickland, however, was apprehensive about the job. “There was very little room for maneuver,” Cordey explains. “Bali Strickland had to use all his skill to keep himself safe, and the camera too. He said to us right from the start, ‘Look, if I get in danger, I’m sorry, but I’m letting the camera go.’” To confirm just how treacherous the shoot was, Longbottom, who some call the best surfer in the world, moments after getting one of the shots, was pushed into the reef by a wave. He managed to get the surface, almost knocked out, with blood pouring out of one ear.
Rudy Diesel has developed a second generation housing for the TyphoonHD which weighs in at 11kg – as opposed to the series’ 20kg prototype. The “South Pacific” camera was also only able to capture two 2.5-second shots at 500 fps before it had to be returned to the boat, opened, and the footage downloaded. The latest iteration of the system allows almost as much recording time as batteries will allow.
One of the great messages of the series is that life is determined and will always find a way to flourish. Cordey points out “Every single one of those thousands of islands. has been colonized by something. In the South Pacific there is no such thing as a deserted island.”
(printed in April 2009 TVBEurope as Solving 3D Headaches: Matt Brennesholtz Helps Negotiate A Challenging 3D Future)
“I love watching 3D, it’s just that after 10 minutes I have a pounding headache.”
At tradeshows, exhibitions, screenings, even meet-ups of 3D devotees, one hears it over and over. At the Digital Television Group’s Summit 2009 in March, an overview of Sky’s plans for 3DTV was introduced with “Here’s Chris Johns to tell us about eye strain.”
There has been a mad rush to produce 3D content even though their may not be the viewership for it. Critics vocally wonder if the producers of 3D content are living in a fool’s paradise, preparing for The Next Big Thing that may never come. The Beijing Olympics was touted as the “3D Olympics”. 3D trials were to play in limited markets, primarily in Asia. The fact that few people have heard that Beijing was the “3D Olympics” may suggest how successful the experiment was.
Creating dynamic, believable and commercially viable 3D images is a challenge that has been around longer than most people suppose. 3D is usually associated with the 1950′s and the spate of anaglyph-based 3D feature films – although the anaglyph technique had been used to create 3D images since the 1850′s. The first stereoscopic motion picture patent was taken out in the 1890′s and the first 3D camera rig was patented in 1900.
TVBEurope talked with 3D expert Matt Brennesholtz, a senior analyst at Insight Media who has worked in partnership with the 3D@Home Consortium. The 3D@Home Consortium was formed in 2008 to speed the commercialization of 3D into homes worldwide. It also attempts to facilitate the development of standards, roadmaps and education for the 3D industry. In 2007 Brennesholtz co-authored a 400-page report “3D Technology and Markets: A Study of All Aspects of Electronic 3D Systems, Applications and Markets”. This all encompassing document forecast the viability of 3D display technology in a vast array of markets into the next decade. Its scope included not just stereoscopic 3D displays, but a variety of autostereoscopic displays, and rotating image plane, vibrating membrane, and micropolarizer technologies.
Brennesholtz is an expert in display technologies, having been a lead projection system architect at Philips LCoS Microdisplay Systems. He has a masters of Engineering in Optics and Plasma Physics from Cornell University and has been granted 23 patents. Still, we asked question most on everyone’s mind – why do we get a headache when we watch 3D?
“One of the fundamental problems with 3D displays,” he explains, “is the problem of convergence and accommodation.” Convergence is the ability of the eyes to stay trained on a point in space and allows you to focus on the text on a mobile phone three inches from your nose. Accommodation is the ability of the eye itself to focus in distance like a mini-camera.
Stereoscopic images rely on the brain’s default setting of always making a single image out of the pair of images received by the eyes – as opposed to how chameleons do it. The perceived “space” between the two side-by-side images in a 3D show is compensated for by convergence with the eyes going from being parallel towards being crossed and back – just as they would in watching a live event.
The element that is challenging for the brain – and for some viewers – is the image in a 3D display is always exactly the same distance away, on the surface of the screen. The convergence of the eyes sends the message that objects are moving forward and backward in space, but the real image each eye is capturing stays put. The brain is trying to tackle two different ways of seeing at once, like a computer running two memory intensive applications at the same time. The fact that the eyes are making very few focus changes, doesn’t mean that the brain is not revving like an engine every time it thinks something is moving toward it or away from it. Perhaps, like the trick of being able to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time, the brain may get the hang of it with repeated viewing.
“There can be other human factor problems associated with bad 3D displays,” Brennesholtz notes, “with certain types of encoding, for example, but this is a fundamental problem that really is inescapable in the 3D display world.”
The most serious aggravation of the accommodation-convergence discrepancy is when the content creator puts images in the virtual space in front of the screen – the monster reaches out to camera, the enemy fires a hundred arrows at us, and the like. These are the effects that producers may push because they have greater visceral impact, but they are also the things that most bother the eyes. Brennesholtz says the solution is to place most 3D effects at the level of the screen or behind it.
Another significant issue, one to induce headaches in content creators rather than viewers, is that the content has to be created for the screen size and viewing distance of the intended audience. Analogous to needing different sound mixes for DVD, theatrical, and mobile device content, each 3D version of a programme must be mastered with its final destination in mind. Sound mixers have managed complex sets of presets for each intended format, it seems likely that 3D mastering will have to learn to do the same.
Although some roadblocks to the perfect 3D experience are exactly the same as they were in the 1950′s, Brennesholtz points out that the sophistication of today’s technology may overcome the others. “Some of the other problems that have been associated with 3D, like dimness or differences in brightness and color between the two images, can be overcome with proper display, screen and video signal design.”
Brennesholtz underlines the consumers demand for a quality experience that is the principle factor in adoption of 3D. “The end user, whether he’s watching broadcast television or cable or blue ray or is sitting in the cinema, is not going to give up anything to get 3D. He’s not going to give up resolution. He’s not going to give up frame rate. He’s not going to accept flicker. He’s not going to accept headaches. Basically, he wants his 2D experience – which right now when you look at HDTV is really good – but with 3D.”
Questions about 3D are in no short supply. Approximately 10% of the population are unable to properly see 3D, and what kind of a strategy must be developed when such a large segment of the audience must automatically be discounted? Most people are unaware that many TV’s are already “3D ready”, but where is the extra bandwidth going to come from if 3D TV is going to become a reality? And finally, if eyeball convergence and focus are such core issues in 3D viewing, what happens to the 3D experience after the third beer?
A 2 hour workshop designed to help writers of all skill levels practice and improve their skills for writing scripts for image-based media – film, tv, comics/graphic novels, games.The workshop is open to anyone interested in writing for film, tv, games or comics – from veterans trying to perfect their skills to people who have never written fiction before.
The workshop will emphasize practice over theory, doing over observing. You will get out of it exactly what you put into it. It’s like an intense session at the gym – for media writing.
Price: £30 (payable via cash or check – PayPal link will be available within the next few days)
We are offering this low introductory rate for this first workshop only. Those who attend for this first night will receive a discount on later courses, starting up at the end of March. Spaces are limited. Sign up early.
The facilitator Neal Romanek is a graduate of University of Southern California’s renowned Cinema-TV Production school. Neal has written for the screen, games, and motion picture industry magazines and websites. He has had intensive training from some of the world’s best teachers in writing and creative process.
I’m happy as a sandboy to announce that our short film, “Unto Dust” is in the can. I wrote the movie, based on the short story by Herman Charles Bosman – South Africa’s Mark Twain. The indefatigable Mendy Groner produced and directed for Memetic Films.
Cast, crew, and technical support from all over South Africa have united to put Bosman’s biting, ironic glimpse of Voortrekker life on film – yes, film – including Gatehouse Commercials, Media Film Services, NFVF, and Waterfront Post. And the additional support of Qualified Health, which is not a film company but instead does some useless thing or other like providing health care.
My deep thanks to everyone involved, but especially to Mendy Groner and Memetic.