Glenn Vanderburg

: Blog

5 of 5 articles
Why do title sequences in movies jitter?
Wed, 02 Oct 2002 (03:32) #
Of course, I watched the new Two Towers trailer today, just like every other Tolkien fan. And I really like what I saw.

But I noticed something I've noticed before, in trailers and in the full-length films. The title sequences jitter on the screen as though they were filmed by a guy sitting in a theater with a camcorder. (OK, maybe it's not that bad, but it's noticeable.)

Effects groups can do motion-controlled shots with live action, miniatures, matte paintings, and CG elements all merged on screen, moving seamlessly together. (For that matter, there was a translucent overlay at the bottom of the frame throughout the trailer, and it was rock solid.) Why can't they generate title sequences the same way?

Treasure Planet
Tue, 24 Sep 2002 (22:34) #
One of the most compelling parts of Lawrence Lessig's keynote address at OSCON was the focus on how many of Disney's works have been built on the public domain, as well as works not yet in the public domain. Steamboat Willie, the original Mickey Mouse cartoon that would have fallen out of the public domain were it not for the Sony Bono Copyright Extension Act (which Disney lobbied hard for) was itself a parody of another film called Steamboat Bill, Jr.. Disney actively tries to stifle any parodies of Mickey Mouse or its other famous characters.

On the new Monsters, Inc. DVD, there's a preview of an upcoming Disney film I hadn't heard of before: Treasure Planet. It's a remake of Treasure Island, set in outer space. (And it looks like a rip-off of Titan A.E..)

Although I disagree with the perpetual extension of copyright, I can see how some people who depend on copyright for their living might feel differently, and I don't condemn them for that. But this kind of double standard -- continuing to build a commercial empire on the public domain, while fighting hard to ensure that your own works never enter it -- disgusts me.

Mon, 23 Sep 2002 (20:10) #
I've never really been interested in anime; I'm just one of those who don't get it, I suppose. But ever since I saw the trailer a few weeks ago, I've been looking forward to seeing Miyazaki's Spirited Away.

Last week I read an interview with Miyazaki by Roger Ebert. It contains this wonderful exchange:

I told Miyazaki I love the "gratuitous motion" in his films; instead of every movement being dictated by the story, sometimes people will just sit for a moment, or they will sigh, or look in a running stream, or do something extra, not to advance the story but only to give the sense of time and place and who they are.

"We have a word for that in Japanese," he said. "It's called ma. Emptiness. It's there intentionally."

Is that like the "pillow words" that separate phrases in Japanese poetry?

"I don't think it's like the pillow words." He clapped his hands three or four times. "The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have nonstop action with no breathing space at all, it's just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time, you just get numb."

That helps explain why Miyazaki's films are more absorbing and involving than the frantic, cheerful action in a lot of American animation.

I'm really pleased to learn that word, ma. I agree with Ebert and Miyazaki about this, and it helps to explain a lot of my tastes: why I like football, baseball, and cricket better than soccer and hockey. Why most action movies bore me. Why I like games like Myst and Riven better than the first-person shooters.

During my first year in college, I spent a lot of time in the student center playing pinball. (That's just one of the reasons that my first year was the first of more than four.) This was 1981/82, near the beginning of the ascendancy of video games. Asteroids was aging but still popular, and I recall Tempest and Frogger being among the things people were excited about.

There was an assistant chemistry professor who hung out with us at the pinball machines a lot. He had just left Berkeley, and seemed almost a caricature: long red hair and beard, etc. One day, he gazed mournfully over at the video games on the other side of the room and launched into a lecture. "Those poor guys don't understand excitement. Those games give them a constant mid-level excitement; it just doesn't stop, and that makes them numb. It's hard to sustain, and it's even harder to go up from there.

"Pinball is different. You can go a long time without anything exciting happening at all. It gets frustrating. But that frustration actually builds tension that sticks with you, and the longer it builds, the more exciting it is when the ball finally starts falling right and you ride and ride to a record game. The boring, frustrating parts actually increase the excitement when a pinball game really goes just right. That's something the video games can never match. Pinball is a lot closer to sex."

Obviously that's not an exact quote ... it's been many years. But that's the gist of it, and as funny as I thought it was, there's a lot of truth in it.

Forward references
Mon, 23 Sep 2002 (12:04) #
I wonder if it's ever happened before that a movie contained a reference to another movie that had not been made yet.

We bought Monsters, Inc. on Saturday, and I watched it twice yesterday ... once with my son, and again with my wife with the directors' commentary turned on. The directors didn't say anything about this, but it was obvious both times. Near the end, in the scene where Sulley is finally putting Boo back into her own room, she excitedly shows him a bunch of her toys. One of them is Jessie from Toy Story 2, and the very next one is the orange clownfish that appears in the teaser trailer for Finding Nemo, which won't hit theaters 'til early next year, at least.

I wonder if that detail was in the original MI prints that played in theaters nearly a year ago. Nobody would've noticed, then, because no information about Finding Nemo had yet been released. But they were probably far enough along with the concept work on FN that they had the little clownfish modeled.

It would be difficult, I suspect, to prove that this is the first "forward reference" in movie history. I strongly suspect that in the early days of Hollywood some props which were prominent parts of movies had previously appeared in insignificant roles in other movies. But this one is certainly intentional, and I was delighted when I saw it.

"My power is made perfect in weakness"
Sun, 15 Sep 2002 (11:35) #
My wife and I watched The Fellowship of the Ring last night, for the first time since we bought the DVD. I realized some things I hadn't before.

Much is made of how Sting glows when orcs are near. But when they're at Balin's tomb and the attackers are approaching, Gandalf draws Glamdring with a flourish, and it doesn't glow at all. That would've been such a simple detail to get right.

The only thing in the movie that I think is dead wrong is the portrayal of Galadriel. Perhaps the gift-giving scene (restored in the special extended edition) will serve to soften her somewhat ... but I still don't see the point in making her seem so menacing. In the books, the characters' fear of her came from a realization of her power, combined with the almost irresistible allure of her beauty, kindness, and hospitality. They feared that their judgment was being clouded.

The one place in the book where she does (perhaps) take on a distinctly menacing tone is when Frodo offers her the ring. That was overdone in the film, but at least there it's just a matter of degree. She does, for whatever reason, deliberately try to give Frodo (and the reader) a glimpse of what the ring would do in her hands, and what she would do as its bearer.

Thinking about that scene, I realized something about its significance. Tolkien made if very clear that he hated allegory, but that's not to say he disliked books with moral or spiritual lessons; he merely felt that explicit allegory left the readers feeling that they'd been preached to. Tolkien's Christian values do show through in The Lord of the Rings, and Galadriel's temptation is a good example. It doesn't work as allegory ... Galadriel doesn't have enough in common with Jesus to see an allegory of his temptation there. But the episode is one of a series in which we see powerful people undone -- or in fear of their undoing -- by the ring. Isildur. Gandalf. Boromir. Aragorn.

The point, I think, is that Frodo is suited to the task before him precisely because he is weak. He neither seeks power nor does he have power that the ring would seek to exploit. Middle Earth's best hope lies in entrusting the ring to someone who is morally strong, but physically nearly powerless.