Pixar is seen by a lot of folks as an overnight success, but if you really look closely, most overnight successes took a long time.
Pixar was founded in 1979, made its first film-related CGI sequence in 1982 (The Wrath of Khan), and didn’t release its first feature, Toy Story, until 1995, sixteen years after its founding. Previous to 1995, Pixar consistently lost money, and it was Steve Jobs’ belief in the company and its creative / technological philosophy that compelled him to continuously pump his own money into it and keep it afloat. Since then, the company - which has been absorbed into Disney and most recently collaborated to make the absolutely gorgeous short film ‘Paperman’ (see below) - has released 13 feature films, tallied $7.8 billion in box office revenue against a spend of $1.78 billion, and has won a staggering 11 Academy Awards, 6 Golden Globes and 11 Grammys. Patience pays off, but the key is to never lose sight of your goals and values, and always, always believe in yourself and your ability to persevere.
I was watching the Chicago Bears play against the Houston Texans last night when the team came upon a 4th and 1 situation; the ball was on the opponents’ 47-yard line and the crowd was screaming for Bears coach Lovie Smith to go for it on 4th down. Of course coach punted the football, but commentator Al Michaels made an interesting quote from legendary Chicago Bulls commentator Johnny Kerr:
“If a coach starts listening to fans, he winds up sitting next to them.”
The Bears went on to lose but that quote kept on ringing in my head. Professional sports, like film, is a public entertainment. They both feature highly trained individuals executing a craft that is watched for enjoyment by large crowds who not only watch, but also critique the work of these individuals play-by-play. I remember once going to a Denver Bronco game and hearing fans heckle a wide receiver who dropped a pass.”You should’ve caught that,” one fan screamed, “my grandma could’ve caught that pass, and she’s dead!” Never mind that the wide receiver was backpedaling at full speed and had a 6’2” cornerback draped all over him, and it was 20 degrees outside and snowing. Having played football myself, I empathized with the player, although I was disappointed that he didn’t make the catch, because hey - I want my team to make all of their catches.
We live in a world that is saturated with access, where the public can critically review any given subject via message boards, forums, and review sites. Restaurants can be made or destroyed by customer reviews on Yelp, books can be vaulted into the stratosphere by Amazon reviews, and movies can be made or trashed on iMDB boards. The common thread to all these sites is that they contain reviews by the public, and not from professional critics. And in this, I’m beginning to see a quandary, because just like how I want my favorite football players to catch all the passes thrown at them, so too does the public place their immediate expectations upon the places they eat, the books and film they consume, and the places they frequent. It is these expectations which affects the quality of their reviews, and it is these immediate expectations that the professional critic tempers, because they’re experts in their medium and their barometer of quality is their own experience, education and informed taste.
It seems more and more commonplace that a lot of the things that the public adores - Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight, McDonalds, Caribbean Cruises - are consistently trashed by professional critics. I’ve known for awhile now that just because something is popular, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good. I do try to read and watch what’s popular to get a feel of the zeitgeist, and I’m often shocked how appallingly bad most bestsellers and blockbuster films are. Take Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code as an example. It has to date done over $250 million in sales, spawned a major movie franchise, and was outsold only by J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It is, by all estimations, a major, major success. So I decided to read it, and after an hour I wanted to gouge my eyeballs out of my head after reading some of the worst writing I’d ever come across. I’m not a professional literary critic, but you don’t need to be when you come across writing like this:
“A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.” On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly. Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars.”
Voices don’t speak, people do. And frozen people cannot turn their head slowly because, well, they’re frozen. Silhouettes can’t stare. That’s just from the first lines of the book, which progressively went from crap to pure shit as I read it.
Leonardo deserves better.
But the public defenders of dreck like The DaVinci Code or Michael Bay’s Transformers movie franchise will espouse that these exist to purely entertain, and that’s what they see what most professional critics are forgetting when they trash films and books that are staggeringly popular. The “I want to shut my brain off and just enjoy something” mantra is what has driven many a mediocre book or film to stratospheric success, and I’ll be the first to say I too would love to escape in a book or film, and I’d say a majority of professional critics would love to as well. Not all critics want to sit through a two-hour incomprehensible tone poem about the Holocaust by Jean-Luc Godard, and I’d be willing to bet that they’d much rather spend those two hours watching a well-crafted comedy like Bridesmaids or Mean Girls. But the key here is well-crafted. The critic appreciates quality and knows just how hard it is to achieve, much like my empathy for the wide receiver who dropped a pass in a snowstorm. He makes that catch and I know it’s quality work, he drops it and I know it was a hard thing to do. (It’s a different story if he made no effort at all, which is a failure of expectation from a professional athlete and is worthy of criticism).
The public wants immediate expectations met, and the critic wants quality that lives up to expectations. There’s a huge difference. At a restaurant a diner wants something that tastes good and served efficiently without fuss. The critic also wants the same thing, but she also knows the pedigree of the chef, the history of the cuisine and what makes it special, and the proper way a restaurant should be run. Her judgement of the quality of the meal will be placed up against those parameters, and she’ll make a much more insightful and critical choice than someone who just wants a good meal.
But shouldn’t it be enough to just have a good meal? In the short term, yes. But in the long term, absolutely not. Art and dialogue persists through a constant pushing of the medium, and if the public embraces what is simply “good” as opposed to what is exceptional, or what is flawed but a bold new attempt - they will be spinning their wheels. And since the endgame for so much content, food and experience is to make money, producers of such will continue to feed the lowered expectations of the bigger public opinion.
It’s hard to write this and not sound like a pretentious blowhole. I hate a bad review from a critic as much as the next guy, but I also want criticism from people who know that field intimately, are madly passionate about film, and who want to see the medium reach the levels of their taste. Are they a reflection of the greater public opinion? Likely not. But they are there to give the public an opinion - an informed, reasoned opinion - about what they feel is the best or worst representation of that craft. And it’s ultimately up to us to use our judgement whether or not to pursue it.
Critics - and by critics I mean people who are good writers, who have studied their mediums and are passionate about them - are necessary for every field because they act as the filter to separate the bad from the good, and to support what is brave, unconventional and contributing to the medium. And of course critics can get it wrong - many a film has been critically panned and yet later been recognized as a maverick work. But I’d rather a trained critic get it wrong than my neighbor who hasn’t studied cinema for a single minute of his life get it wrong. That’s not to slam by neighbor - I’ll take a recommendation from him any time, but I won’t have him decide what is good or bad for the medium. And that’s what’s happening on the Internet right now. People are overriding the critics, and if writers, chefs, filmmakers and studios keep listening to the people, they’ll proverbially end up in the seats next to them. The barometer of quality should be driven by a balance of both - a critical gaffe can be saved through a supportive public, and a public misconception can be righted by a critical review.
Don’t trust the boxoffice and go see DREDD.
I think of the golden age of cinema - the 50s through the 70s - where films were put through the critical gauntlets of Cahiers Du Cinema and the likes of Pauline Kael, Serge Daney, Manny Farber, Gene Siskel, Andrew Sarris and Andre Bazin, and I can’t help but think that those critics made our medium better. They were critics that wanted to see cinema that not only entertained them, but that also challenged the medium with the intent of making it better, more expansive, and as a greater, deeply textured expression of the human condition. These critics were harsh, but only because they want quality and craft from the people who are the very best in their field. There isn’t a filmmaker, author or chef in the world who doesn’t want to please a tough critic, and when they do, they know that they’ve done something special, and that critic has pushed them to that limit. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and it only works when the public trusts its critics, and the critics are believed in by its craftspeople. And it’s more than okay to disagree with a critic - that’s what they’re there for - and that’s the healthiest thing that can happen for any art form, which is debate and discourse of what is working and what isn’t. It’s absolutely vital to progress, and it is the role of the critic to eloquently and rationally be the firestarter of that debate.
I want to leave you with one of the most beautifully written passages about criticism I’ve ever experienced. It is from Pixar’s Ratatouille, where food critic Anton Ego - voiced by Peter O’Toole - speaks of the responsibility and burden of the critic. It’s staggeringly gorgeous and relevant, and is arguably one of the greatest sequences in all of cinema. Of course that’s my critical opinion, and I’m sticking to it.
I’m completely baffled by The Smurfs. At last check, the movie has grossed $519 million worldwide, with another glut of income anticipated from cable, DVD and VOD sales. In total I’d estimate a total gross of around $700 million for the film, making a net of around $220 million. That’s damn good business.
And yet it’s not a good movie, rather it’s cashing in on the nostalgia of Generation X, and it’s not the only one. One glance at the production board for 2012-2014 sounds like a schedule ripped from a page of an old TV Guide: 21 Jump Street, Arrested Development, Thundercats, 24, Entourage, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I found that there is indeed a Jetsons movie in the works, rendering my nightmare vision of that film a distant, macabre possibility. And here I thought I was joking.
And we haven’t even gone into the sequels: Ghostbusters 3, The Fast and the Furious 6, Jurassic Park 4, Terminator 5, Austin Powers 4, Bad Boys 3, Scary Movie 5, National Treasure 3, Toy Story 4, Avatar 2, Pirates of the Caribbean 5, The Hangover 3, Zoolander 2 and yes, The Smurfs 2.
And we still have the remakes / reimaginings of old movies, including Footloose, Dirty Dancing, Red Dawn, Robocop, Mortal Kombat, Oldboy, Logan’s Run, Red Sonja, The Karate Kid, The Crow, and Short Circuit. There’s even an Angry Birds movie in development.
It works only as a commercial.
I know, I know. It’s just business. I’m not here to question the decisions made by studio executives, but as a filmmaker and audience member, I do wonder why we the public are so willing to pay the highest ticket prices for films we have already seen? Did we not learn our lessons from the multitude of Star Wars redoes? Did we all not agree that Indiana Jones 4 was completely unnecessary? Didn’t we collectively scratch our heads when classic films like Straw Dogs (and soon another Peckinpah film will get butchered, the immortal Wild Bunch) and Psycho get remade for no good reason? Why remake a film that is already great? What more can be done to it?
We have to remember that all of these sequels and remakes started with an original film with an original screenplay - and by original I’m saying as a work with no precedence or a work adapted from a book, article or event. Without the embracing of original ideas, today’s remakes are a complete impossibility. Sequels were generally relegated to a trilogy, and the rarely has the third chapter shown any kind of promise - the only cases I can think of is Toy Story 3 and both the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series, which are weak examples because they are based on a series of books . Films are being made with open endings not because the filmmaker wanted to leave things ambiguous, they’re being left open because studios want to leave the option of having a sequel.
I think we’re treading on very dangerous territory here. Right now the only way an original script will see the light of day is with a star attachment, and even with that star those films will see limited resources. Case in point is Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive with Ryan Gosling. It’s a magnificent piece of filmmaking, and could only be made with the involvement of Gosling. And even with him, the producers could only muster up a $13 million production budget for the film, a far cry from the average star vehicle. The film has performed poorly due to limited exposure and a smaller distribution P&A budget. The same can be said for Brad Pitt’s Moneyball, an original film that could only see the light of day because of Pitt’s involvement. Both films provide little to zero possibilities of sequels or remakes.
Studios want franchises, and they want them rightfully because franchises make a shitload of money. But they also cost a lot of money to make and distribute. It’s just like running a McDonalds, franchising and churning out ho-hum product. But what would happen if we ran the film industry like an In-N-Out burger, where we focus on quality instead of quantity. I’ve been reading Stacy Perman’s book about the founding of In-N-Out, and was struck by founder Harry Snyder’s overriding philosophy, which was to “keep it simple, do one thing, and do it the best you can.”
Snyder was defiant of what McDonalds and other chains were doing to gain business, which was throwing gimmicks (remember the McDLT?) at customers while serving them consistently inferior product. Those chains also added other products to the basic hamburger, like fish sandwiches, salads, and pizzas, all of which were still inferior, and which also added logistical costs to the franchises, which had to now handle twenty different types of food. Snyder, in the face of this billion dollar shitstorm of fast food competition, decided to stay true to his original vision - just make really really good hamburgers, and keep the customer happy with the best quality product possible. I think Chik-Fil-A follows the same principle, and both chains are amongst the most successful businesses in the country, and are growing steadily without compromise to product.
The film industry has to look at its product in the same way. All of these gimmicks - remakes, reimaginings in 3D and sequels - are just a dilution of the core product, which is compelling, original screenplay. Give the people what they want, at a consistently high quality level.
One can argue that the studios are making billions off sequels and remakes, and so too is McDonalds wildly successful, as they open one new restaurant every day on this planet. Sure, these companies are successful, but we have to ask if there is such a thing as too much success, of a toxic success that serves to kill the fundamentals of commerce and industry. Look at the maelstrom that is happening in the global markets and banking industry. The ultra wealthy corporations have pillaged the economic landscape, ridding the consumer of choice and making the barriers to entry impenetrable. Competitors are cut out either by pricing or legislation, supported by lawmakers who have placed all eggs in one basket, counting on these ultra-successful corporations to support the nation’s economy. All this while small business cannot compete and new ideas can only flourish under the wing and financing of larger conglomerates. When a company like Goldman Sachs controls the fate of every major economy (via markets) on the planet, we should call that a dictatorship, and not a success of capitalism. Sure, Goldman Sachs became that successful through hard work and long hours, but then so did the Gestapo. That’s indeed hyperbole, but we have to absolutely wonder if too much growth is toxic, like a cancer.
I support the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement, and will be there next week.
The film industry was built on original work, and now it has turned its back on it. Original work must be funded and nurtured independently, which is a shrinking window. Major festivals and smaller distributors, to hedge their risk in a turbulent market, are seeking movie stars just as much as major studios. Like small businesses, the original works must build and persevere in the face of oligarchies, who continue to play a game of smoke and mirrors with the consumer, because the consumer has little to no access to the alternative.
The remake and sequel are gimmicks, taking something that was one original and bleeding it dry, a complete scheme for studios to capture a built-in audience and save money on marketing. And yet we’re paying for it. Ultimately, the success of remakes and sequels is our fault because we support it. Let’s be honest and vocal about what we want - we don’t want another Ghostbusters, we want something just as funny and original as the first one, something that sparked our imagination as much as that first one. There’s an original script out there about paranormal hunters that’s just as funny, and I want to see that. I don’t want to see something that I’ve already seen a million times. I want something new, like Drive, like Another Earth, like Bellflower, like Moneyball, like Midnight in Paris, like There Will Be Blood. I will pay for that, because I get something back from it.
In the eventuality when I open my studio (What? Didn’t I tell you about that?) my model for production will always be Pixar. I’ve studied the studio for almost ten years since my graduate MBA studies, and most recently The Economist held a wonderful video interview with visionary Pixar Co-Founder Ed Catmull. I’ve posted the interview below, and if you are serious about being a filmmaker, you owe yourself the 30 minutes to listen to the way he thinks and the way Pixar operates.
Pixar is a company that is dedicated to the creation of strikingly original content. Even in its sequels, they manage to present something entirely different and new. At a time when the major studios are at the height of conservatism - just look at the box office, where sequels, adaptations and remakes are ruling - Pixar continues to churn out mind-bendingly original content. And it is the reason why they are successful, because when people go to see a Pixar film, they know they’ll take part in something they’ve never experienced before. That’s a guarantee.
Doing that entails embracing a hell of a lot of risk and uncertainty. I love that in the interview, Catmull declares that the most successful companies operate in a state of uncertainty. This couldn’t be more true, and it applies to filmmaking the most aptly. We have to take calculated risks, if not then we will get lost in the sea of output. Sure, I could make a hack-and-slash teen vampire movie and make some money, but if I really want to stand out, I need to take a risk with the genre. Which is what I’m trying with Lilith. It’s unknown if the film will succeed or fail, but I will always know that we pushed the envelope of what the genre provides, and it’s guaranteed that a film like it has never existed before. It’s got a genuine stamp of originality, and that’s a badge we all can wear with extreme pride.
But here’s the thing: Pixar doesn’t fail. And that’s a tribute to the culture of the organization and the commitment they show to their directors. And as you’ll see in the interview, they take that commitment extremely seriously, because in the end, filmmaking is as much as business as it is an art. I can’t think of a better way to run an organization - any organization - better than what Pixar does. They are a model company, and the scary thing is that they will never rest on their laurels, they are always changing, always trying to improve by taking calculated risks.
In the process of reviewing the footage and making notes, it’s readily apparent that aside from the standard hard work of sound design, editing, mixing and three static CGI plate shots (no animation), our post-production requirements on Lilith are actually very, very small.
This is in large part due to our budget - we have no money for fancy CGI effects - but also to our commitment to doing as much as possible in-camera and with practical effects. We could very well do things like add CGI blood and wounds, but then nothing can ever replicate the real thing. We relied on old-school camera tricks to create effects, which are still remarkably effective and make my editing life that much easier and cost-effective. I can’t imagine doing this particularly grisly scene from Lilith with CGI blood:
Now I’m not eschewing the use of CGI, as it has become a staple and extremely valuable tool of filmmakers. But I do think that there is a growing trend of turning over more and more of physical filmmaking to the computers in post-production, a trend which personally irks me.
I was recently watching the amazing extra features on the Criterion edition of David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and was incredible to see that despite the CGI-intensive work on the film, the overriding philosophy was to physically capture as much veracity as possible during photography. Fincher’s commitment to physical authenticity rings true in all of his films, and the key to this is in his planning. Fincher knows exactly what the computer must do, and what the camera must capture. He doesn’t rely upon post-production to provide things that he can’t readily capture with his camera.
I feel this is a dying mindset, as I’ve been privy to film shoots where the director so-readily declares “we’ll fix it in post.” No. You don’t fix it in post, you fix it right then and there, by re-doing it. It takes valuable time and physical resources, but it’s all about maintaining the truth of the material and the moment.
This unfortunate idea of correcting flubs in post before even reaching post-production doesn’t limit itself to photography, it’s extending to performance as well. I was on a film shoot where an actor continuously flubbed a line, and the producer of the film made the executive decision that instead of doing re-takes to get the scene right, that the actor would just ADR (re-record) the line in post-production. My jaw dropped.
Our reliance upon the technological gifts of post-production has now extended far beyond the normal boundaries, and the skills of directing, cinematography and acting are being handed over to the tech wizards in a disparate number of post houses. This is not a slam on the artists of post-production, but rather an observation of a growing complacency in physical filmmaking.
We should only utter the term “fix it in post” after all other options have been exhausted, or when we are actually in post-production and we notice a flaw that went under the radar. We cannot think of post-production as a universal fix-it solution; it’s cold and distant, takes a lot of time, and costs a hell of a lot of money. It’s a band-aid on a bullet hole.
Are there things on Lilith that I wish I could fix in post? Honestly, no.(EDIT: at least not yet!) As I go through the footage, my crew did an admirable job in covering our bases. Are there things I wish I could re-shoot or gather more footage of? Absolutely. But that’s not about fixing in post. That’s just being able to capture so much in a given amount of time.
But with filmmaking becoming increasingly post-production oriented, our responsibilities and descriptions as filmmakers are evolving. Can we call the camera work in Avatar true cinematography? Of course we can. But now we have to include CGI artists along with the traditional gaffers and grips in the lighting team. It’s all becoming very gray.
I don’t know. I’m a bit old-school in that I like to keep it as real as possible whenever I can, and if I need a character to jump flat-footed into the Earth’s atmosphere then I know I’ll need to do that in post-production. I love that filmmakers like David Fincher, Spike Jonez, Kathryn Bigelow, Jonathan Glazer, Neil Blomkamp and Darren Aronofsky, all of whom fully embrace post-production, use it only as a tool to amplify what they physically shot. It boils down to these filmmakers knowing exactly what they want and not compromising the truth when it comes to telling their stories.
But we also have to acknowledge that less than two decades ago, some of the most amazing and eye-popping sequences in cinema were created without the benefit of high-tech computerized post production, and the budgets of those films were significantly less. CGI has its place in movie magic, but it has to serve the film, and not the other way around. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button uses cutting-edge technology as a narrative tool - the aging of a single character and actor - and not as a gimmick or a patch. The original Star Wars trilogy was not a slave to post-production, unlike their dismal prequels. Compare Ray Harryhausen’s work on the original Clash of the Titans and compare it to the 2010 remake, and the ‘updated’ version lacks heart, it’s only bells and whistles, in my opinion. It’s the classic case of post-production effects driving the principles of classic filmmaking, and it is a consistent result that these films lack the depth and heart of the epics of yesteryear.
Again, I’m not poo-pooing the use of CGI, but unless it is used for an entire film (i.e. what Pixar has accomplished) it is only a tool to bolster the original captured image. As is consistently stated throughout this blog, it is my opinion that the technology works for us, and not vice-versa. This applies at every stage of filmmaking, and for that matter for our lives in general. When I see the ad for the new iPhone that states “I don’t know what I would do without my iPhone” it makes me cringe. We could, and did, do a LOT of things before there were iPhones. Some might argue that we were actually more productive before apps like “Paper Toss” and “Pocket God” were created. Just a thought. :)
P.S. I highly, HIGHLY recommend watching the DVD extras for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Many times we hear the term ‘DVD film school’ and this is one of those discs that embodies it. I might just make a list of DVDs with amazing extra features in a future blog post. These are invaluable tools for filmmakers, as it’s the next-best alternative to sitting with David Fincher in person or being on a major film set.
Sundance Institute trained, journeyman molecular biologist with bonus producing, writing, editing and directing skills. Amateur film historian, unapologetic liberal Tarkovskite with fierce cooking skills and a penchant for unusual stories. I hope you like my writing and find it useful.