In my exploration of cinema, old and new, I don’t like the idea of determining which era of filmmaking was better. There are some classic film buffs I know who can’t stand anything that was made after 1960. Some recognize everything before 1960 to be far too old fashioned, broad, and over the top as far as acting and story goes. Neither group is right. Different times and different generations call for different kinds of storytelling. Some older generations of people may just prefer those classic films because it came from a time that spoke to them…just as a younger generation today would feel about today’s films…like The Avengers for example. But for any filmmaker to say that one era or another of filmmaking is no longer valid, I think in a way its a sign of ignorance. When I was at Cinecon, seeing all these wonderful, great films of the past inspired me in ways I can’t even begin to explain. If there’s one thing I did feel more of in those classic films than in a lot of movies I see today, it was that heightened reality on display…where characters were larger than life. Where you really felt like you were entering a fantasy world. Even if the film was a serious drama, there was still that heightened sense of otherworldliness that could only happen in the movies. It wasn’t about trying to make films seem more realistic. It was about taking you away and making you believe in the story you were about to be told. We all know the feeling, and we’ve heard it said before…that the movies are a place of dreams…of hope and inspiration for the future. When we go to the movies, we’re automatically prepared to be taken to another level, where we see our dreams made real.
In the silent and early days of cinema, comedies were broad. Big stars actually risked their lives to do incredible stunts. Character actors were literally characters unto themselves. There was nothing real about them. And despite that, we loved and allowed ourselves to believe in them anyway. Acting styles change over time as performances from actors evolve and become more sophisticated. But the best actors of today never forget the roots of their classic star ancestors. They still play on that heightened reality, not on whats most realistic. I went out to the movies last night to see the new film, “Lawless”, which was a true story about gangsters in the 1930’s prohibition era. After sitting through so many great movies at Cinecon for five days straight, I have to say that by the time Lawless was over it left absolutely no impression on me. The acting just…bored me. It was a chore to sit through. But the one actor in the film who did manage to create a compelling character despite only having about 7 to 10 minutes of screen time was Gary Oldman. He is one of the best actors working today, who is practically a chameleon in every performance…no two characters are alike…practically every voice that comes from his characters is its own. Everyone else played their part straight. A little too straight. It was a true story. But some of the best bio pics never forgot that they were still movies. One of my favorite movies at Cinecon was the bio pic, “Diamond Jim”. What’s funny about it of course is that while the film is a true story and is based on a real person, practically every character is a caricature, including Diamond Jim, and sometimes even the comedy could get fairly broad. Back then it was a film that could have been directed by The Coen Bros. And yet today, they could handle a true story and never sacrifice the entertainment value of the subject they were depicting. In an ironic twist of fate however, there’s a great story about the film Fargo, which says at the very beginning that its based on a true story. At one point, William H. Macy who played Jerry Lundergard went to one of the brothers and asked, “what can you tell me about the real case? What really happened?” They’re reply was, “Oh, there was no case, we just made it all up!” To which Macy said, “You can’t do that! You can’t lie and say its a true story!” And their reply was, “Why not?” Of course, its a pretty deceitful thing to do to the audience, but it made everything about the story, the writing and the acting, so much more compelling for them. And all the more shocking. But its a lie, they say. Well, yeah, it is…but when has any movie ever told the complete truth? If it were, it would be boring!
The real truth and honesty however comes in the depiction of the characters and the story. It may be a caricature of an idea, but in the back of our minds we can still agree that, “yeah, life is just like that”. It’s the idea that we allow ourselves to believe in these characters, even if its a human being, a muppet, a drawing on celluloid, a CGI model…we the audience make those characters real through our own imagination.
This notion of creating believable character is especially applicable to the world of animation and visual effects. Comparing both stills of the dinosaurs above, the first animated the legendary Ray Harryhausen from The Valley of the Gwangi and the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, supervised by Stan Winston, Phil Tippet, and Dennis Muran. Which dinosaur is more believable? Well, I think the answer is neither. And thank God to that when the creators of Jurassic Park set out to create their dinosaurs, their goal for realism never sacrifices the dinos as characters. The dinosaurs in the first Jurassic Park are not simply raging monsters. All of them are characters and have personality. And their designs are based not just on photo real accuracy, but they are designed to reflect their personality on the inside. This was the mantra of Ray Harryhausen when he created his monsters. None of his creatures were evil or raging beasts…he treated them like real animals, that just wanted to eat, sleep, and simply be. And when those pesky humans start intruding on their space and start attacking them, the creatures will defend themselves. It’s that kind of sympathy that made Harryhausens monsters so real to us. They could be frightening to us…but as Harryhausen also put it, that fear humans have of monsters comes from what we don’t understand.
I was introduced to Harryhausen in the 80’s, and my first movie I saw was his swan song Clash of the Titans. I only saw the film 7 years after it first came out, but I don’t know if I’d say there were a great many technical breakthroughs from the time Harryhausen started doing stop motion to his final film. In his development through his career, the tools of course had changed, but his intent with the characters never did. I still think despite all the most realistic depiction of monsters in movies today, one of the most frightening movie monsters in cinema is Medusa in Clash of the Titans. She is scary. I was like the guys in the film, I didn’t want to look at her either out of fear of turning to stone! But I was compelled by her as a character, and its one of Harryhausens finest animated performances. Compare that now with the new Clash of the Titans series, where the effects people clearly learned nothing from what Harryhausen taught us. The monsters in the new version were all incredible spectacle, but hollow on the inside, and covered up by fast confusing camera moves that never really let us get a clear look at the monster itself. Many monsters in films today are sadly hollow shells built for cheap scares rather than making them into compelling characters. One of the reasons it worked in Jurassic Park was that Phil Tippett got inside the dinosaurs heads by animating all the dinosaur sequences in stop motion, which not only became a reference for the animators, but it also helped them with physics by giving the dinosaurs a sense of weight in their movements, which was vital considering CGI was still untested during that time. Had they never approached it from this manner, from the roots of everything that came before, the movie would never work. In some ways today, it seems like CG is taken for granted a little too much, especially with creatures in film, where the performances just aren’t as iconic. We’ve gotten a few good CG performances partially due to Andy Serkis, but also because the motion capture performances were tweaked by the animators to help shape the characters and make them more convincing. But most importantly, everyones input was about shaping the character’s personality first. It’s how we got great characters such as Gollum, and most recently Caesar from Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
But the same thing applies to character animation as well, where you could compare the animation of Walt Disney to the characters of Jay Ward (Rocky and Bullwinkle). It’s not about which approach is better, but regardless of the medium, it still comes down to the characters personality and who they are. South Park is the ultimate expression of this, with cheap animation supported by strong, larger than life characters. It’s the truth of that character that we identify with that matters most. Frank Thomas, one of Disney’s Nine Old Men, would say its about sincerity, and the challenge is how do you find it in your characters?
I think for any young artists, actors, animators, and filmmakers, its really important to look back on older films and have an understanding of where performance on film began. The acting was all inspired by the theater and vaudville, and its fascinating to see how it evolved from simply having the camera pointed at a stage to watching how they started experimenting with different cutting, shot techniques, and cinematography to develop an entire language. But when you do look at those films, don’t watch them from a 21st century viewpoint…leave everything you know about yourself in the present at the door and set yourself in the time when the film was made. Brush off anything in the film that may have to do with race, color, creed, or whatever was going at the time, and just watch the characters at play. If you allow yourself to be put in that mindset, you will gain a better understanding of the importance of the heightened reality that is vital to cinema. As much as the tools change, as much as the films of today become more realistic, you’ll realize after awhile that its not about how realistic the film can be for you, but instead its about how much your willing to invest yourself in these characters to make you believe in them up on the screen. As a filmmaker, think of it as 50/50 with your audience. You don’t want to do all the work to explain everything for your audience…the audience wants that leeway to let their imaginations take over. Doing that gives them access to your world. Even if its a biography, documentary, or a true story, you still want to let yourself go and believe in the world of the film.
In the end, its believing that makes our dreams real.