Month: May 2015

Institutional Knowledge Lost: Rick Baker Retires

bakerwerewolfRick Baker is a legend, a key face on the Mount Rushmore of make-up and special FX practioners. Men like Baker, Savini, Bottin, Harryhausen, Edlund and Winston were rock stars to me as a kid. I knew their work by heart, each bringing a new discipline or creative take to the cinema. Recently, Baker announced his retirement from make-up effects work. It is sad news for the movie industry, but not entirely unexpected.

If you are a regular reader, you know I am not a huge fan of digital special effects. I can count on one hand CGI films that I actually like- Jurassic Park I because CGI was innovative- as an example. Now digital effects are cheap, washed out, deny basic laws of physics and end up blurring the line between animation/video game/live action for the worse.

Baker leaves at the twilight of practical FX, even as directors like Miller, Nolan and Blomkamp attempt to keep it alive. Undercut by digital effects, the art of the practical, hands on artistry of Baker and cohorts is being shuffled into the warehouse of movie history.

That is a damn shame.

Yes, even I admit many make-up effects of the “good old days” were not always convincing, but they were always remarkable, striking and look like effort went into creating them. The minute servos, motors, hand milled articulated miniature, tiny air bladders, unique mixtures of resins or rubbers, and the fine work of stop-motion, all had a workman quality to them. They were achievable, with lots of practice, but were never so easy that they should be taken for granted.

When talents like make-up artists and practical effects artists work now, they are almost novelties or boutique projects crowdfunded or paid for out of their own pockets. I would watch a personal short film made by any FX great if it adheres to the old ways of film making. All effects types and disciplines have their place, but to lose a generation of artists to cost cutting or puerile ideas of what “looks good” is a travesty. Watch American Werewolf in London for the ultimate transformation scene. Admire the photographic tricks of the campy, but technical superior, Mighty Joe Young. These were the old ways. Not always the best, but always earnest and beautiful.

Now we live in a digital age where eyes of television and movie viewers, raised on a generation of video games and simple CGI, are used to the physics defying perfectly polished. Atmospheric distortion, motion blur and articulation that adhere to physiology are almost entirely lost in this new special effects world.

Baker and his colleagues operated in the strictly physical world. If it didn’t fit on or around an actor, then they did it miniature or in stop-motion. Arduous and time consuming was the work of Baker. It was artistic and beautiful in craftsmanship.

The film making craft has gotten a little less hands-on and a lot less smart with Baker’s departure from the industry.

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Assault on Original Sci-Fi: Have Fans Become Agents of the Machine?

Something has happened to original celluloid science/speculative fiction in recent years. Creators of new ideas, those stories generated through inspiration or ideas scribbled in notebooks as a child, are assailed and mercilessly pilloried for seemingly minor entertainment transgressions.

Somewhere along the line some vocal fans- yes every film is designed for public consumption as part of the entertainment industry- have gone from spectators to participants in the shaping and marketing of science fiction films. Money is to be made by giving the fans what they want, true. But what about original works that make it the silver screen? Advocates for original, not adapted stories, are few and far between. It seems a fashion to deliberately mock and attack creators of original science fiction ideas on film.

If you await the next big-named science fiction/superhero franchise, there is no quarrel. We find comfort in the familiar and escapist. But the quarrel lay with those who hoist these new movies above all others and denigrate ideas that aren’t spawned, in particular, from sequential art exemplified with the recent release of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

What seems to happen as of late are directors berated by “sci-fi” fans for their efforts. I posit that fans seeking voice online are in fact fans of the comfort/familiar form of science fiction, particularly from comic-books And in a way, many have become agents of the studio marketing machine. By enlisting in this marketing effort would-be pundits become thought-leaders and influencers of the wider viewing public, especially online and within their social media circles. Just as we love comfort, we also as a species love to follow the leader. In war-time you can always tell a leader on the battlefield by the person waving their hands and shouting the most. That is the marketing role adopted, seemingly unwittingly, by many devotees of high visibility, comic-book type science fiction. I enjoyed the inaugural Iron Man effort, thought Captain America: Winter Soldier had a plot and turns worth investing it. And Guardians of the Galaxy was a riot of space opera fun.

In the past decade we’ve seen a plethora of superhero science fiction franchises dominating the box office. The Avengers I and II, Spider Man, Thor, Captain America, Wolverine, X-Men and Iron Man have been tent poles, well-known titles that have become the standard bearer of movie science fiction. Appealing to a broader crowd than tights and superpowers crowd have been YA book spin-offs Hunger Games, Maze Runner and Divergent. Each of these projects relies on such rigid source material that any deviation is unthinkable, resulting in at times bland, consumed with CG that renders the film a two hour video game, or such ham-fisted films that defy the most generous label of good films. When a film does deviate, like Man of Steel, the vox populi erupts with such righteous indignation that attempting to defend the project makes you a scurrilous Neanderthal who knows nothing about morality in science fiction film making.

Related, tangentially, is actor/writer Simon Pegg’s comments on the dumbing down of the industry and film-goers here and here.

But back to the issue of originality.

When was the last truly original science fiction film that transcended the genre viewer and become a lasting cultural phenomenon? In James Cameron’s Avatar we had a massive financial success, but as pointed out in Forbes, the film left no footprint on the wider popular culture. Last year’s Interstellar from Christopher Nolan, was an achievement in blending in-camera traditional visual effects, digital creations and a thought bending plot. Yet for all the money it made, the critics were numerous and many came from the hallowed halls of science fiction websites. The last ground-up science fiction franchise to peak culturally was the Matrix trilogy. Funnily enough, the Wachowski’s most recent effort, Jupiter Ascending, was joyfully picked apart and derided for its story telling, style and even its creatures. Uh, like grown men running around in skin tight primary colored uniforms is a shade of reserved normality? And cheese filled dialogue and banter worthy of a adolescent’s joke book is the height of mature story telling.

The one film that seemed to rebel from the stigma of original sci-fi pillorying was the magnificent Mad Max: Fury Road. Yet if you look at box office totals Fury Road still could not find the pole position in its first week.  Losing to a musical sequel, Pitch Perfect 2, despite being in over 200 more theaters Fury Road pulled in $20 million less for the weekend.

There should be comfort science fiction- popcorn movies. But there needs to be room for original ideas, something created through a life-time’s worth of sensory experiences. Not every original work will be flawless, but neither are the glut of superhero science fiction films overtaking the cinemas. Search out, hard, for complaints about plot holes and leaps in basic film making with the genre and you’ll find them. We face an adventure and science fiction film landscape where Hollywood studios and genre fans have become intertwined. Hollywood is all about making money, its their goal, and they follow the trends. Right now its all about  the superhero and for that reason we all lose.

Asymmetric Review: Mad Max- Fury Road

madmaxfrA kinetic masterpiece is the only way to simply describe this newest installment of the long missed post-apocalyptic adventure tale. Max Rokatansky, once played by Mel Gibson and now Tom Hardy, is still a resident of the wasteland. His V-8 Interceptor remains, as does his Main Patrol Force leather jacket, leg brace and even his double-barreled shotgun. Yet there is something new, stark and somehow gentle about the Road Warrior. Perhaps that is Hardy’s style, a bit soft yet more feral than Gibson’s square jawed rogue. Both haunted, Max in Fury Road is a creature bent on survival, on his own and at all costs, until his path crosses into the world of Immortan Joe, his harem of ‘breeders’ and a war rig driver, Imperitor Furiosa (played magnificently by Charlize Theron.)

Where the Road Warrior centered on a tanker load of gas and Thunderdome revolved around kids lost in a wasteland, Fury Road is the story of fearless women escaping a brutal and licentious overlord who holds together his fiefdom with gifts of water and brute force. When his prized brides flee with Furiosa, spirited aboard a ‘Mothers Milk’ tanker, Joe’s war-boy vehicular warriors give chase. This is where Max gets thrown into the fray.

From the start, George Miller’s Fury Road is a load harsh world. His color palette of amber and sun-baked red , rather than a drab grey of most dystopic cinema. His masterful use of a world already established- nuclear war, lawlessness and cult status of the automobile- weave seamlessly into the modern vernacular. I grew up on Gibson’s Max, including watching the ‘American’ English dub of the Australian original and the mechanical aesthetic Miller established 30 years ago flows perfectly into the celluloid of 2015. It feels as if 20 plus years have gone by and the cancerous and belligerent survivors have spawned an organized, but degenerate society.

Importantly, Fury Road has the viewer invested in two types of fear. One for the characters and the high speed peril they find themselves in from the first frame. The second fear is for the life and limb of the stunt performers and drivers that fill the screen with gear grinding, metal bending and vehicular eruptions unseen, well since Thunderdome. The crunch of each collision and tumbling body immediately prompt gasps. The human eye, connected to our highly evolved brain, understands the true pain and thrill of flesh-and-blood stunt performers hurtling around a film. We simply cannot get the same visceral emotion from pixels rendered in a climate controlled office in California. Fury Road is kinetic cinema that is required to keep film alive.

The movie goer is invested in the future of the women in Fury Road especially, and the few decent men trodding the desert landscape. The strength of the women- Cheedo, Dag, Toast, Capable and Angharad- to seek freedom at all costs is astonishing. Each actress brings their own interpretation of victim in flight, without becoming set dressing. They are innocent shut-ins, who crave freedom and release personal demons upon their enemies. They are press-ganged mothers who refuse to let their children be the next, possibly final, generation of men to destroy the Earth. Many consider Avengers director Joss Whedon a model of feminism in filmmaking, but I venture the women in Fury Road, their abused souls and determination to survive, make them astonishing characters worthy of note, exemplified by the involvement of Vagina Monologues creator and activist Eve Ensler in Fury Road.
Theron, always a tall and dominating figure of beauty, turns Furiosa into a character whose sex is secondary to an astounding drive and furiosity. Besides the obvious physical attributes, Theron’s Furiosa embodies humanity in precarious balance- hope or violence. She is magnificent.

Men are not portrayed too flatteringly in Fury Road. Joe is a pot-bellied muscled near -albino, his minions are cancer-ridden and delusional about Valhalla while huffing chrome spray paint in the moment of violent ecstasy. The bosses of the two other towns in Fury Road, Gas Town and Bullet Farm, are vile and violent misogynists. Human lives are less valuable than bullets, gasoline and nitrous oxide.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a loud, violent film, awash in more character building than the last dozen Hollywood blockbusters. Watch Mad Max, The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome, and then marvel at the modern incarnation of live-action filmmaking as it should be.