live action films

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.

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You Got Computer Animation in my Live Action!

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Shooting indoors, instead of out, modern movies rely heavily on visual effects to build not only characters but also surroundings. In The Avengers actor Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk (right) was entirely rendered based on ‘motion capture’ of his body. An important note, the lack of realistic flexibility in Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man means he too wears motion capture to fill in arms and lower torso.

In a 2002 interview with the late Roger Ebert, Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki noted with  amusement the amount of computer animation appearing in film. It was the Spiderman movie franchise that apparently caught Miyazaki’s attention for its level of animation in a film that is otherwise billed as live-action. Miyazaki told Ebert, “In a way now, live action is becoming part of that whole soup called animation,” where his traditional form of animation holds its own niche.

As you’ve seen by reading this blog, you notice that I am more a traditionalist when it comes to visual effects- miniatures or practical- with the sparing use of smart or visually striking computer effects. The best recent example of this blend of traditional, physical effects and digital work was in 2014’s Interstellar. While imperfect, the Christoper Nolan film attempted to reach lofty heights in visually striking ways. I remained engaged in part because the VFX matrix was nuanced and diverse.

Computer/digital generated effects found in a vast majority of modern films is a tricky balance and often overused. Without delving into issues with the Uncanny Valley, ultimately computer generated images have become so interwoven into live-action films that a preponderance of frames are entirely digitally rendered.

So I must ask the question- how much of a movie is required to have physical actors in order to be live-action? 70%? 60%? 51%? When does a modern action “live-action” film go from being live into animation?

In 2012’s The Avengers, director Joss Whedon assembled a superhero battle royal that relied heavily, if not almost entirely, on CGI. For a good look at the immense number of computer generated effects, check out this article from FxGuide. In The Avengers there are “approximately” 2,200 effects shots in the film, with many characters entirely computer rendered throughout the entire length of the movie.

Combine this with the heavy movement towards high-definition all digital film-making and you have the recipe for live-action shots in an otherwise animated movie.

In a Screen Rant article it was estimated that this year’s Avenger film will have 3,000 VFX shots. By contrast James Cameron’s Avatar, a movie that spanned 162 minutes and panned by some for its CG over dependence, there were 2,500 VFX shots. Contrast that number of VFX shots with the landmark and continually beloved Star Wars, which had just 360 special effects shots most of which were miniatures and travelling mattes.

With each passing year actors are rapidly siphoned out of live-action movies. Their likenesses scanned and digitized to be placed on computer generated character that move so blindingly fast and without a sense of connection to the physics of the real world that our “live-action” films of the 21st century feel more like computer animation.

I adore traditional 2D animation. I respect modern digital animation that combines the smooth precision, with washes and tones more like traditional hand drawn animation. What I don’t like is a “live-action” film that feels more like a 2 hour cut-scene from a video game.