Archive for The Lord of the Rings

The Monday Intertitle: Tin Pan Alley Meets Termite Terrace

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , on November 18, 2013 by dcairns

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I had kind of assumed for years that Ralph Bakshi was strictly an anti-talent. I saw his LORD OF THE RINGS when it came out, and though I was a kid then and maybe didn’t appraise it with the devastating acuity I could obviously bring to bear on it nowadays, I felt even then that his rotoscoping (that technique whereby animators trace the movements of live action originals) didn’t work — rather than using it to reproduce tricky moves and dimensional stuff like horses which are a swine to draw in motion, he was using it for everything, so that you lost the expressiveness of actors and never gained the (different) expressiveness of cartoons. Also, I thought it was a con to charge the audience full price for half a movie. If you’d told me Peter Jackson would become a megastar director charging full price for a third of a movie, I wouldn’t have credited it.

And then I saw COOL WORLD, which seemed like a really dreadful thing. There are only a few movies that really feel like they were made by people on drugs — Frank Zappa’s 200 MOTELS is one — but they are uniquely awful.

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But AMERICAN POP (1981) is actually pretty enjoyable. An ambitious narrative, charting the evolution of popular music in America via a generational tale. Excellent voice work (Vincent Schiavelli and Lisa Jane Persky were the only names I recognised in the cast). Stylish backgrounds. Bakshi’s tendency to mix stock footage in with the animation worked better here, due to the historical backdrop, than it did in, say, WIZARDS (which I’d forgotten about until this second. Yeah, that one’s horrible too). The multi-media mix is still distressingly random — even the titles, a scrapbook of mostly beautiful drawings, is poorly edited, with long pauses between some titles, others that bleed across from one shot to another — a messy job. And Bakshi has really patchy taste. The opening is a pogrom in Russia presented with intertitles and a Jewish liturgical soundtrack and it’s pretty epic, until a rabbi butchered by cossacks expires with a grunted “Oy!” I mean, OK, this is a cartoon, but please decide on your tone. And don’t pick THAT tone.

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As with other Bakshi films, largesse is alternated with economy, which means the selections from the Great American Songbook are generous and the animation sometimes limited, but Bakshi at least compensates for still crowd scenes by lavishing detail on every figure. The colour schemes are both rich and nuanced, which is unusual to say the least in animated features, and the vignette-based storyline (less narrative than pageant) keeps the images refreshing themselves at regular intervals.

The rotoscoping (the mo-cap of its day) is still a problem, so that what were no doubt fine live action perfs are sicklied o’er with the pale cast of poster paint. Any time the figures try to act with their faces, it’s a disaster, as the poor animators are still trying to trace actors’ movements instead of doing some actual cartooning. And I swear I recognise some of these shots from other movies. Isn’t this THE CONFORMIST? Bakshi is potentially leaving himself open to lawsuits here.

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But as an unusual, pacey musical history in drawn form, it’s kind of striking, like watching a roll of paint-smeared player piano music unspool all over a scrapbook of Old New York. And it’s kind of incredible to think of the movie even existing — like somebody signed off on the concept before pausing to reflect that a chronological structure means you’re going to have various versions of Sweet Georgia Brown for an hour before there’s anything the kids recognise…

In fact, the film gets worse as it goes on, though Ronni Kern’s screenplay throws up a few neat scenes, battling and embracing every cliché about the music biz as it goes, occasionally capturing the electrified snapshot quality of a Warners pre-code, condensing and energizing a whole social scene into a miniature blackout sketch.

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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.

Ray Away Day

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2010 by dcairns

I can’t name everybody in this snap, but Ray is the very tall one at the back… also the one sitting down in front. John Landis, who did a fine job as MC, deploying every fibre of his weapons-grade affability, is at far left. Our esteemed host, Randy Cook, is behind the man in the green jacket (who is a big famous FX guy also). Peter Jackson, who jetted over specially, is behind Ray. Ray’s daughter is at far right, and beyond her are some very important people indeed but they’re not in the photograph.

So — through circumstances I would have to call miraculous, Fiona and I got to be guests of Randall William Cook, a special effects man and friend of Ray Harryhausen, at the event honouring Mr. H. upon the successful completion of his ninetieth year. I’ve been meaning to interview Randy, a regular Shadowplayer, for some time. I’d read his amazing CV on the IMDb, but hadn’t quite processed how significant his work has been. Where it lists him as visual effects supervisor on the LORD OF THE RINGS films, I’d thought “Wow. Still, I bet they have about eighteen of those.” But Randy was in charge of all the animation, including Fiona’s hero Gollum and her brother’s favourite the giant spider. I am impressed.

I saw two movies at the Film Fest on Friday, THE SQUEEZE (seventies retrospective) and RESTREPO (modern documentary about Afghan war) then hit the sack. We got up at four, made it to the airport by taxi and bus, and then found our flight delayed. This was kind of OK because it meant less hanging around London in the very early hours with nothing to do. We flew in on one of British Airways trained pteradons (“So old it’s new” goes the slogan) and shopped and rested until the big evening. Meeting Randy we then attempted to navigate the concrete labyrinth of the BFI Southbank, an Escher-like structure that seems to fold back on itself. Randy had unfortunately sprained his throat on some whisky the night before and was nursing an Ymir-sized uvula, but his good spirits never flagged. He was yanked away to prepare for the ceremony and we ate.

Taking our seats, we found ourselves behind the geniuses of Aardman Animation and next to Simon Pegg and Reece Shearsmith. It was fun listening to them go through their programme like little kids. When we weren’t doing the same.

What a fine show it was. Ray, expecting a typical Q&A, was surprised to be greeted by celebrity guests and video tributes from the likes of Frank Darabont, Guillermo Del Toro, John Lassiter, James Cameron… Steven Spielberg did his usual extemporaneous gibberish thing, something about a superhighway made of dirt… but the affection and enthusiasm were absolutely genuine. George Lucas made some remark about “the Melies brothers” which suggests he should brush up on his film history… but all these guys were certainly dedicated students of Harryhausen’s oeuvre. I can quibble with the phrasing, but both Spielberg and Lucas latched onto the idea that Ray’s work is part of a continuum stretching back to the origins of cinema, with his own work for Willis O’Brien on MIGHTY JOE YOUNG forging a crucial link with the past. O’Brien started in 1915 and Harryhausen has carried on his legacy and inspired this amazing roomful of people.

The most moving testimony came from Ray’s contemporary and namesake, Ray Bradbury, who spoke of their love and friendship which has endured since early youth. Boldly he urged Harryhausen on to age 100, with himself, slightly younger, following close behind. Nonagenarian artists are subject to the same rules and conditions as the rest of humanity — it’s only via they’re work, if beautiful enough, that they get a free pass to immortality — but I hope they both go on forever.

In person, the animators and effects guys made the best showing. Phil Tippett led the audience in a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday, then repeated the song in a short film in which one of “It’s” six tentacles crushed him to jelly before he could finish a verse. And there was much rejoicing. Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh, who completed Ray’s THE STORY OF “THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE” were there also, sworn to secrecy about which 8 seconds Ray contributed. Rick Baker, his impressive silver ponytail resembling more and more the tail of Pegasus, joined his buddy Landis on stage to pay tribute to the monster master who inspired them both.

When Cairney met Cairns.

The acting community showed their affection via Caroline Munro, still fabulously glamorous, and Gary Raymond and John Cairney spoke with moving nostalgia and affection of being chased across a golden beach by an invisible giant bronze statue. Cairney, a native of Glasgow, was the man I had to speak to afterwards. We formed a nice little Scottish enclave, myself, Fiona, John, and Ray’s son-in-law who hails from Killiekrankie and wore his kilt (a good fashion option in the sweltering heat of the concrete shoebox that is the NFT’s green room.

Reading Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, it was interesting to hear him acknowledge the influence of the Korda THIEF OF BAGDAD. It struck me for the first time that not only did Ray deploy a Pegasus and a Kali statue that comes to life in his work, but that Talos, who squashes John Cairney under his big bronze body in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, is following in the outsized footsteps of Rex Ingram as the Genie of the Lamp. Cinema really is a continuum… everybody who participates is part of it… it’s just that if you’re a tireless genius who reaches the age of ninety and inspires several generations of artists, you stake out a somewhat larger part of it than the rest of us.

Catchphrase of the evening: “We are all the children of the hydra’s teeth!”

Peter Jackson jetted in to pay homage, and screened his own childhood attempts at Harryhausen magic. His stop-motion cyclops didn’t quite measure up to the master’s, but was screened in all humility and humour. His skeleton fight got the best laughs of the evening. “I knew you were supposed to put the skeletons in afterwards, so I filmed myself fighting… but then I couldn’t figure out how to do that. So I’m fighting an invisible skeleton.”

Insights into the Harryhausen process were fascinating and funny. The image of Ray running about with a drawing of an eye on the end of a very long stick, to give the actors something to look at, is an indelible one. It’s something I would like to try myself, in private life. With or without the excuse of making a film.

We also picked up a booklet featuring tributes to Ray from sundry other parties, including actors Martine Beswick (ONE MILLION YEARS BC), Douglas Wilmer (JASON and GOLDEN VOYAGE) and Honor Blackman (JASON). Here’s what the relentlessly sexy Honor says:

“I think of Ray more as a magician than as a man of immense imagination and a brilliant technician. There we were, we thespians, acting our socks off in the ordinary world while he was holed up in his studio of magic, weaving his spells, hoping that we were all doing him justice.

I couldn’t possibly have imagined that forty-odd years later this classic, Jason and the Argonauts, would be enthralling not just youngsters but all ages, generation after generation. It was such a bang watching my very small grandchildren glued to the screen and sudden cries of ‘There’s Nonna’! Then they turn to look at you and can’t quite work it out. To be truthful, I think they recognise my voice rather than my person since (this is tongue in cheek) I don’t wear my hair like that now!

The location in Italy was great, as was dear Don Chaffey, our director, and I really fancied the idea of sitting up on high with Niall MacGinnis controlling the events on earth: my children tell me it was the role I was best suited to!

To have my bust sculpted (I use the term in the artistic sense) for the figurehead on the prow of the ship, the Argo, I was laid on a table in just my bra – above the waist – told to throw my arms backwards and raise my front off the table as far as I could while they took photos from all angles. It took ages. I wonder what happened to those photographs? Do you think they’ll turn up on eBay one day or might we find them in that wicked Ray Harryhausen’s bottom drawer?”

Well, we did learn from Ray’s daughter that he never throws anything away…

Also in attendance: Terry Gilliam, Andy Serkis, Edgar Wright, modelmakers, animators, paleontologists, deep thinkers and Sir Christopher Professor Frayling himself. And a host of others. “Obie” O’Brien, safely nestled in Kong’s palm, looked down from on high.

My own primal Harryhausen memories relate to TV viewings of JASON and 7TH VOYAGE. The TV show Screen Test used to show the Talos scene quite often, or else it would turn up elsewhere. At any rate, I remember tiny me hiding from the big monster on numerous occasions. Gradually working up the courage to watch a little more each time… Randy reports his own tiny daughter approaches monsters and scary stuff with similar caution. You want to build up a tolerance gradually… And once I channel-hopped between VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (a boring, non-Harryhausen movie) and 7TH VOYAGE, because stuff like the cyclops was just too scary for me. In fact, it took a lot of courage to get close enough to the TV, in those pre-remote-control, black-and-white set days, to actually turn the channel and get the giant goat-legged man-eater out of the room.

Later, I saw SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER on the big screen, where it blew away upstarts like THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT and AT THE EARTH’S CORE and all those Godzilla double-features we cheered through as kids. (Ray not only provided the spark for Godzilla himself, with THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, an atomically-activated dinosaur, he introduced the giant monster fight scenario with the Ymir battling an elephant in 20,000,000 MILES TO EARTH, thus keeping the Japanese film biz afloat, with a single big idea, for decades.) And CLASH OF THE TITANS brought the Greek myths I’d enjoyed at school to life in an accessible way. A little campy, still a little scary, a lot of fun. And Fiona was enjoying those same movies on their first runs up in Dundee, all ready to compare notes when we’d eventually meet.

At WETA in New Zealand they scanned Ray’s entire body, and produced this perfect bronze miniature Harryhausen (just the right size to ride an eohippus), now the proud possession of John Landis.

For UK readers, here are two awesome books on Ray’s life and art:

Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life

The Art of Ray Harryhausen

And for US readers:

The Art of Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life

Once more, Twenty Million Thanks to Randy!

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