Archive for Andy Serkis

Short People

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2012 by dcairns

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

“Shit just got unreal” was my Facebook comment on THE HOBBIT Part The First, which is perhaps a little unfair. The merits and demerits of the movie, the franchise, Peter Jackson the filmmaker and the faster frame rate and the RED camera all deserve a slightly more nuanced discussion than those four words.

I liked it better than Fiona! In some ways it has the same flaws as the LORD OF THE RINGS films before it, only amplified. And the 3D and 48 fps may be problematic in the same way that the digital effects in the STAR WARS prequels were problematic — they make the film seem less of a piece with its predecessors. But THE HOBBIT isn’t as bad as THE PHANTOM MENACE, let’s get that straight…

(Maybe Jackson should have shot at 24 and projected at 48, thereby making the film half as long?)

I enjoyed some of the action and settings, and the HFR probably allowed me to follow the fights and chase more readily than I could otherwise — Jackson tended to film too close in LORD OF THE RINGS, making close-up skirmishes dissolve into blurry chaos. Either because he’s improved or the technology has helped solve the issue, that didn’t happen here. I didn’t enjoy the performances as much. LOTR uses “epic acting,” big, bombastic, cod-Shakespearean and borderline campy, but much of it was done with skill and a kind of good taste. Here, I felt the usually reliable Ian McKellen was huffing and chuntering to himself too much, and he didn’t seem to have any other characters to talk to. Among the dwarves, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt and Aidan Turner managed to get some human interaction going with Martin Freeman’s Bilbo (some reality but too much schtick), the rest were basically flatulent garden gnomes. Richard Armitage doesn’t manage to make anything convincing or interesting out of Thorin Oakenshield’s bluster and grouch.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

I’m told that McKellen had to act his scene at the dinner table with a bunch of paper cut-out heads on sticks, with light bulbs that flashed on to signal when each character was speaking so he could look in the right direction. I would, on the whole, far rather see that version of the scene. Those character designs are not very appealing! Why does only one dwarf bear any resemblance to John Rhys-Davies in LOTR, who had a very detailed and specific and non-Disney look? Why does one dwarf have a bald head with what looks like a bar code on it? One looks like a waxwork of Finlay Currie, one Sean Penn, and several of them have shoelaces for hair. Not a good look.

But the reason I went, and was excited to go, was the 48 frames thing. I’d heard so much about how horrible it was, I couldn’t wait. I couldn’t picture a big expensive epic that moved like a cheap TV show, and I was fascinated to see what that would be like — it was sure to be interesting! I got a lot of intellectual pleasure trying to describe that awful Zemeckis mo-cap BEOWULF, so I just couldn’t wait.

It was indeed a very interesting thing to see. It may have had invisible benefits to action and movement which we’d only be aware of if comparing directly with a 24fps version, but it did some spectacular uglifying. Some people have compared it to cheap soap operas, to demo reels, but what I was reminded of was a making-of documentary. There you see the actors, fully costumed and made up, on set, delivering dialogue — and it’s not the same as the movie, because it’s filmed with the wrong camera, and you don’t feel part of the action the way you do in a film, you feel like an observer on the set. It’s very REAL, for sure, because the sense of cinema is stripped away, but this exposes every bit of artifice in the design and presentation and performance. Even Howard Shore’s music seemed weirdly wrong, as if it was being piped into the hobbit hole.

This applied mainly to the Bag End scene and other conversations. The only acting scene that really worked was the “Riddles in the Dark” confrontation with Gollum, which was great and I think one would have to be pretty curmudgeonly or else just averse to any kind of halfling-based performance piece to dislike. Oh, and Sylvester McCoy was good when he was on his own, acting with CGI hedgehogs.

The long shots looked mostly OK, I thought, and still scenes were fine. The action had a verité feel that made me think something like CLOVERFIELD might be good at 48fps. I wondered if the dragon attack would gain any of the feeling of real disaster footage, like 9:11 or the tsunami, but the swooping filming style didn’t allow for that. There was a very weird clash of feelings when Jackson intercut the big subterranean goblin chase with Bilbo’s one-one-one struggles with Gollum — Gollum’s last sequence had a particularly televisual quality, like a 70s Outside Broadcast Unit section from Dr Who — those plastic-looking caves. And then Gollum would crawl into shot and there’d be the thrill of the impossible — a modern CGI character who couldn’t be played by a man in a suit and who looks very convincing, appearing in the background of a fake cave that looks like part of actuality footage shot forty years ago with a tube camera. Not an effect that I think was intentional, or desirable, except that it was so damned odd it gave me a lot of pleasure.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

What I’m saying is that although I did get somewhat used to the process over the nearly three hour running time, I was still blown out of the movie by it repeatedly, right up until the end. If the movie had seemed like a masterpiece, that would have been hugely frustrating, but as it was only a middling Middle Earth epic, I was actually entertained by my own on-again-off-again disengagement. I mildly enjoyed the big fight at the end, but not as much as I enjoyed the High Weirdness of megabudget + cheapness. I was a bit frustrated by the lack of wagon wheels, though: apparently at a higher frame rate they not longer seem to turn backwards, as they do at 24fps. Jackson cruelly robbed me of the chance to finally see correct spin.

Remembering the troubles people had with early sound and widescreen, we shouldn’t be too hard on any problems Jackson’s encountering — maybe our eyes will simply retrain our brains and the associations with crappy video will fall away and the merits of the new technology will become obvious. But for now, I say enjoy the weirdness — you won’t have had an experience like this before.

Tintin ambulation

Posted in Comics, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2011 by dcairns

My cinematographer friend Scott Ward (hire him — he’s excellent!) likes to stress the importance of getting The Look right. Once you have decided on The Look of your film, your job gets easier, or at least possible, because you have a Plan to guide you through the multiverse of creative decisions awaiting you. One of the reasons Sidney Lumet’s book Making Movies is so useful is he clarifies and expands on this with examples from his own career, and he shows that The Look is not a static thing imposed flatly over the script, but a dynamic, evolving process. A simple example would be his film THE HILL, which starts on a wide-angle lens, progresses to a very wide-angle lens, and finishes on a very very wide-angle lens. The distortion and confrontational quality created by the actors thrusting their faces out of the screen is progressively amped up. Likewise/contrariwise, TWELVE ANGRY MEN starts wide-ish and moves slowly to longer and longer lenses, flattening perspective so the walls press with the claustrophobia of a Fu Manchu death-trap as the film goes on.

So big, global decisions about The Look are helpful — Lumet would never have to worry about what lens to use after making that call — but they’re also important. It’s  very hard, possibly impossible, for a film to recover after going with the wrong Look. Which brings us to THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN: THE SECRET OF THE UNICORN (or TAOTTSOTU).

It was obvious to me from the first screen-grabs posted, and progressively more obvious with each trailer released, that the Look of this film was rotten. This is to some extent a subjective opinion, but I’ve noted that those defending the visuals tend to say things like “What’s wrong with making it look like the comic strip?” So I win, because the film doesn’t look anything like the comic strip, as Spielberg is good enough to make clear by opening with a beautifully graphic title sequence which DOES look like the comic strip. It’s so stylised and simple that everyone involved probably thought “There’s no way we could make the whole film look like this.” And yet, as Scott says, “You get rewarded for bravery, always.” If Spielberg and Peter Jackson and WETA had gone with an actual Hergé visual surface, 2D in 3D, it would have been gorgeous, just as the titles are (for another suave Spielberg credits sequence, see CATCH ME IF YOU CAN).

Instead we get these grotesque, over-textured walking waxworks, blinding us with microscopic detail just because they can, brought to us by the horror of mo-cap. Now, the mo-cap characters in LORD OF THE RINGS or RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES need to have pores and individual hairs and so on, because they’re interacting with flesh-and-blood actors and have to match. But if you’re creating your own world entirely in the computer, the most boring, cowardly choice is to make it look exactly like the world outside your window. Plus these porous, shambling, dead-eyed fleshwads are disgusting to the eye, as any cartoon character would be if he sprang from the page and shrugged on a suit of protoplasm.

Mo-cap at its worst (ie Zemeckis) combines all the limitations of live-action (the bodies are constrained by anatomy & physics) with the limitations of animation (the micro-body language and facial language can never be as subtle and expressive as a real person) — whereas in the right hands, it could combine the best of both. But this would require the involvement of talented animators to manipulate the mo-cap info, bringing in cartoon exaggeration as required. Up until the big action set-pieces, TINTIN suffers from horrible animation: when characters fall over, they abruptly transform from weighty, clodhopping corpuses to inertia-less balloon animals, floating to the ground at a constant speed, obeying the laws of neither actual gravity nor its Loony Toon equivalent.

Happily, in the big action set-pieces, actual animation of reasonable quality dominates, and the film starts to work. As always with Spielberg, the visual gags are ingenious and clearly presented, and the form allows him to get away with all sorts of business that would be too silly in an INDIANA JONES (and which indeed were too silly in the last INDIANA JONES). The wild chase through a fictional North African city actually suggests a valid use for mo-cap, and calls to mind the motorbike-and-sidecar antics of Wallace and Gromit and THE ARISTOCATS, as well as 1941 and Spielberg’s admiration for the hairy chases in Miyazaki’s CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO.

Of course, Miyazaki’s master criminal is a much more colourful character than Hergé’s, and TINTIN suffers from a bland lead, leaving Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock (with a non-canonical Scots accent) to bring on the fun. The screenwriters (including the Scottish Steven Moffat) seems far more interested in Haddock than in the film’s nominal hero, which is understandable but problematic: Tintin is relegated to the position of bystander in the action climax, which is really an anti-climax coming so soon after the bigger and wilder bike chase. And this is followed by a ten-minute set-up for the next film, surely something the writers should have fought against given Spielberg’s post-SCHINDLER’S tendency to allow his films to drivel on and on through multiple endings.

TOP MO-CAP FACTS

1) Andy Serkis gets a lot of work in motion capture because his body is covered with evenly-spaced moles, making the technicians’ job easier. These moles are removed by CGI on those few occasions when Serkis acts in a non mo-cap role.

2) Robert Zemeckis’s fascination with the mo-cap process is explained by the fact that he experienced his first sexual awakening while gazing upon the animatronic Lincoln at Disneyland. Since then he has contrived to fill his films with marble-eyed, plastic-faced mannequins, and when Michael Douglas and Tom Hanks couldn’t give him what he wanted, he turned to CG.

3) A special feature on Peter Jackson’s KING KONG allows you to “turn off” the mo-cap and see Andy Serkis in a leotard for the whole movie. It also turns Jack Black into a sock puppet. Some scenes actually play better that way.

4) Cheapjack exploiteer Charles Band pioneered an extreme-low budget version of motion capture by smashing some old computer monitors and gluing the spilled pixels onto Brad Dourif. It still looked better than THE POLAR EXPRESS.

“Uh-oh, the reviews are out!” 

BACK TO TINTIN

So the news isn’t all bad. Some of the writing is deft and funny (although I was surprised Tintin had to be told that Marlinspike Hall belonged to the Haddock family, then discovered this fact in the library, then went there and noticed a coat of arms and realized in amazement that (gasp!) Marlinspike Hall belonged to the Haddock family. Exactly the kind of thing that can but shouldn’t happen when you have three writers.

Asides from the ever-mo-cap-ready Mr. Serkis, none of the actors really make an impression through their layers of digital wadding, and the intriguing Daniel Craig is particularly dull as the sinister Sakharine, with a sub-Dick Dastardly reading that’s a stock villain devoid of any individuality. I did realize how well thought-out the character is in graphic terms, though. Consider:

Older-than-adult as contrasted to Tintin’s younger-than.

Where Tintin has a pure white dog, Sakharine has a shit-brown hawk.

There Tintin has a peak of hair on the crown of his head, Sakharine has one on his chin. He’s nitniT, the inverse Tintin.

The film’s Look is very slightly redeemed by nice colour co-ordination, with a frequent recourse to cerulean blue which recalls the strip. The lightness of tone gets John Williams working in a less bombastic mode than usual, which is nice just as a change, and Spielberg creates some beautiful scene changes exploiting the particular nature of the animated image, it fluidity and flexibility, in a way I haven’t seen much of since the terrific overture of Disney’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.

Maybe best of all is the 3D, which isn’t vulgar or needlessly intrusive, allowing itself to barely register at times, but popping out at moments of drama or for little dramatic flourishes — one shot, where a torch beam sweeps into the audience and illuminates a cloud of silvery dust motes, drew appreciative gasps from Fiona and I. Maybe this is just like the Victorian audiences who stared in autistic fascination at the blowing foliage in the background of Lumiere home movies, a novelty which will pass and which has comparatively little to do with cinema’s real power or charm. But it seemed powerful and charming to us.

The Ape of Things to Come

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2011 by dcairns

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. In which, as we always knew he would, James Franco destroys human civilization.

SUDDEN CHIMP ACT

Seriously, think about it: all the decisions leading, in practical terms, to RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES’ apocalyptic climax becoming possible are due to unprofessional actions by the film’s hero. To be fair, though, all the emotional drive which makes that climax desirable to the characters engaged in it (ie the apes) are due to the actions of more unsympathetic humans.

Who are all played by British actors (would you entrust your ape to a sanctuary run by Hannibal Lektor and Draco Malfoy?). If it weren’t for the fact that the director and lead ape are British, one would suspect some kind of restaging of the American Revolution in simian drag. Just give Caesar (Andy Serkis) a set of wooden teeth and the illusion would be complete.

Actually, referring to Serkis as Caesar is an oversimplification, in a way that referring to John Hurt as the Elephant Man isn’t. Hurt certainly had the assistance of Chris Tucker’s prosthetic makeup effects (no, not that Chris Tucker), but when he whooped and grunted and shrieked, it was his voice, and when he swung from the bars of his cage and leaped through the treetops, that was really him. That’s not quite accurate, but you get what I mean. And asides from his stuntwork and voicework, considerable portions of his performance, Serkis has had his facial performance “reproduced” by motion capture. Every animator I’ve spoken to is of the opinion that, when this happens, the animators involved (and you had better get animators involved) have to interpret what the mo-cap supplies, and sometimes depart from it, to create an effective performance. Andy Serkis obviously just thinks he’s wearing a pixel suit,  which is fine for him but not TRUE.

I’m not saying he shouldn’t be eligible for an Oscar. I don’t take awards THAT seriously, and in any case, countless actors have been rescued or enhanced by good editing, which is maybe a better reference point than good costumes or makeup. Somebody interfered with those performances, tweaked the timing, censored the misjudged moments, manufactured reactions that never really happened. Mo-cap performances are several stages on from this, but as long as we acknowledge that WHENEVER a movie actor wins an award, it’s for part of a group effort, and that this is true to the power of a hundred with mo-cap, there’s no reason why an effective performance shouldn’t be celebrated. If this thing continues to catch on, though, maybe a special category would be the way to go.

Obviously, ROPOTA *is* a film about revolution, and in some respects a starry-eyed one. As Reid Fleming, World’s Toughest Milkman once remarked, “the right people never get hurt,” but in Rupert Wyatt’s film of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver’s hyper-condensed screenplay, swift simian justice is distributed to most of the bad humans, and the movie is squeamish about depicting injury or fatality to the numerous blameless cops who get in the way.

THE APE OF RAGE

OK, I’m just going to wade in here: due to the coincidence of the film’s UK opening being a little behind the US one, it’s impossible not to think, occasionally, of the London riots. One doesn’t have to be the racist joke guy on Facebook who’s suddenly reinvented himself as a patriotic voice of reason and won the endorsement of our mean, vapid PM (himself a vandal and lout in his college days) to compare the insurrections in film and life.

Neither the riots nor the film are fundamentally about race, but it’s at the very least a  complicating factor in both. The APES series always touched on race a little, and in not quite comfortable ways, although the first film has barely a trace of this. By the time you get to CONQUEST it’s all about “ape power” and it’s a bit dubious. Including black humans as peaceful good guys in the last two films helped complicate and blur the metaphor a bit, which was useful, and casting David Oyelowo as a big pharma bad guy in the new one is even better. Really, the movie is about any oppressed group, and how violence erupts when injustice has built to such a point that the only conceivable response is a cry of “No!” and the taking up of arms. Whether the violence will actually produce any positive result has come to seem irrelevant to the perpetrator, so intolerable is the status quo.

The apes in ROTPOTA actually act with a much more effective, coherent and sensible common purpose than the rioters in London… actually, that’s unfair. The various goals of the rioters, insofar as they can be gleaned, were achieved, and delivered the short-term results they aimed at. Those were, in no particular order, (1) attaining a feeling of power by intimidating others, preferably those of a different social class, and by violating normal social rules (2) acquisition of free consumer goods (3) expression of revolt against the police. Some took part in all three activities, some in only one or two.

In fairness to the rioters (!), their festive rampage was basically spontaneous, whereas the apes had been planning theirs, at least a bit. So one uprising had only short-term goals, and probably looks a bit stupid now they’ve had a chance to think about it and now that many of them are under arrest, whereas the other had a long-term, desirable result in mind, although one that probably wouldn’t have worked if not for the movie’s other apocalyptic gambit.

What ROTPOTA does, quite usefully, I think, is show the pleasures and satisfactions of violent overthrow of the social order. In the understandable rush to condemn, there’s a tendency to view the disruptive element as alien, other, mindless and unmotivated. David Cameron has wholeheartedly embraced his predecessor John Major’s moronic sound-bite  “We need to condemn more and understand less!” A line which suits him, since he really understands absolutely fuck all. (Hearing that line first spoken, to resounding cheers, at a Tory Party Conference on the TV news was a truly chilling moment for me.) When Julien Temple was asked whether turning a race riot into a dance number in ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS risked making it seem entertaining, he protested that a riot IS entertaining and extremely exciting when you’re in one. This movie dramatizes that in a way that speaks to a contemporary audience more effectively than Temple could manage.

ANTHRO-PO-MO

While Time Burton’s inane and abortive series reboot seemed to regard its predecessors as silly, excusing its own dull humour and anything-goes sensibility (gorillas suddenly evice the ability to leap twenty feet straight up — and all because Ang Lee had just boosted wirework), ROTPOTA respects its primate ancestors and builds a credible pseudo-prequel that doesn’t slot into the series (here, Caesar is the child of a lab animal, not time-traveling chimp scientists from the year 3978) but draws upon story elements of the first, third and fourth films, producing a narrative outcome that could lead almost directly to the first movie but without necessarily requiring two thousand years of atomically accelerated evolution to do so.

Accordingly, the movie is stuffed with nods to Schaffner, Wilson and Serling’s Boulle original adaptation, some of which are glaring (can a nod glare?) and some so subtle you’ll only figure them out with a crib sheet or IMDb cross-referencing. The examples below are me taking things too far, as usual.

1) The film is set in San Francisco, which is a homage to actor James Franciscus who starred in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES.

2) The casting of David Hewlett as an unlucky neighbour is not only part of the actor’s ongoing project to appear only in movies about geneticists who take their work home with them (see also SPLICE), but also a reference to SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS: Hewlett plays a character called Hunsiker, and in SSOS there’s a character called Susie Hunsecker, played by Susan Harrison. And Nova in PLANET OF THE APES is played by Linda Harrison. No relation.

3) In ROTPOTA, John Lithgow plays a man with Alzheimer’s. This is a reference to the original films’ decline into senility with the 1974 TV show.

4) In ROTPOTA, the leading man/doomsday catalyst is played by James Franco. This is a reference to James Whitmore, who plays Dr Zaius some random orang in the original film.

5) The milky eye of Koba, the scary chimp, in ROTPOTA, is a reference to Kirk Douglas in THE VIKINGS, which also features James Donald. Donald also appears in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, in which ancient visitors in a spacecraft reawaken submerged warlike tendencies in the populace of London, which is exactly what Dr Zaius fears Charlton Heston will do in the original film, as well as being exactly what David Cameron has done in modern London, only without a spacecraft.

He started well but now he’s just got silly.

TARZAN AND HIS (PRI)MATE

Since Fiona’s quite well read on the subject of interspecies communication, she was able to supply me with additional insight into the film’s exploration of the subject. “They’ve really done their homework,” she says, pointing to the moment where Caesar is punished for biting a man’s finger, an incident drawn from the life of Washoe, a signing chimp. Some very experienced people like primatologists  Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Bob Ingersoll (hero of PROJECT NIM) have praised the film for its expressive evocation of the physicality of our ape relations and sympathy with animal characters over human. There have always, or nearly always, been films that took the side of the outsider — in a way its easier, or more flattering, to take the viewpoint of a rebellious chimp than it is to relate to the fleeing citizenry who are closer to our own type — but this movie takes it further than most. The humans are all either ineffectual or wicked.

The film’s air of somewhat-authenticity even manages it to steamroller over moments of outrageous artifice, such as the presence of another signing ape in the hellish “sanctuary” where Caesar is imprisoned. “Circus ape,” is his explanation for his communicativeness, as if any circus taught signing to its orangs. But the emotional impact of Caesar finally having another of his own kind to talk to is such that the contrivance is swept aside.

Really, quite an interesting film, probably the first blockbuster to even try to do anything interesting with real-world engagement since, I don’t know, V FOR VENDETTA. And it probably incorporates its ideas more neatly than that one. This can be seen, on one level, as the first APES film in the series to be actually about our relationship with the animal kingdom.

To take us out, here’s Johnny the chimp reenacting the end of ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES. This is entirely real.

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