Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author and script coverage consultant whose publishing credits include 21 books, 112 plays and musicals, 4 optioned feature films, and columns that appear throughout the world. For more information, visit her website.
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This Month: COMING TO A STATION NEAR YOU: THE NEXT TRAIN TO REALITYIn 1985, artist and author Chris Van Allsburg penned a charming, coming of age Christmas story that would win the prestigious Caldecott Medal the following year. Replete with illustrations that resembled fine art oil paintings, The Polar Express touched a chord with both children and adults in addressing the gap that exists between innocence and cynicism. At a scant 29 pages, it was concurrently simplistic and complex, revisiting mankind’s age-old question about what, really, constitutes faith in that which cannot be seen.
Fast forward to 2004. Tom Hanks, Robert Zemekis and almost $200 million will be riding on the hope that the holiday movie version of Van Allsburg’s book will not only recoup their investment but open the door for a revolutionary breed of filmmaking called “performance capture.” Considerable commentary in the trades and popular media have eagerly introduced us to this hybrid of live action and animation, a process that allowed Hanks to assume five different roles, including that of the nameless hero, an eight year old boy reluctantly poised on the threshold of young adulthood.
Should Warner Brothers’ gamble pay off in the form of box office gold, predictions are in the works that other moviemakers will quickly follow suit. Having already witnessed the resurrection of dead celebrities to hawk products like Dr. Pepper and Fritos, as well as the emergence of cyber-driven plots such as Al Pacino in Simone, it was only a matter of time before someone figured out how to morph living actors into CGI caricatures.
For the short term, of course, the question is whether the underlying message of Van Allsburg’s story will be swallowed up and devoured by all of the eye-popping imagery. Given that we are faced with a medium that has to compete with high-tech toys and X-boxes for the attention of our young people, the significance of elements like plot, character development and dialogue are diminished with every swish of the wizard’s cursor.
For the long term, the impact on Hollywood’s employment picture is even more grave. Between the combination of virtually anyone being able to don motion-capture (mo-cap) suits for subsequent conversion to “reality” and virtually any actor being able to assume roles that contradict their age, ethnicity, and physical attributes (including gender), how will future Oscar contenders be evaluated? The disturbing notion that a CGI replicant of Marlon Brando could fare better in awards than a hard-working newcomer who had to learn lines, perform stunts and work in an actual set is enough to make us wonder whether the ultimate value of an actor’s craft will depreciate along with the substance of story.
ANIMATION IMITATING LIFE
Cartoons have come a long way since the helium-infused fairy tale characters who first danced across flat backdrops in the early days of Disney. As technology began to introduce vibrant, three-dimensional effects and major stars began lending their vocal talents to fierce beasts, cocky genies, assertive princesses, and sensitive ogres, the sophistication elements soon elevated the genre to one that was as amusing and watchable for adults as it was colorful and entertaining for their offspring.
None of these new components, however, have been at the expense of a solid and satisfying story. Lessons are still learned, hearts are still won, wrongdoers are still punished, and the promise of a brighter tomorrow still lingers long after the final credits roll. Though the characters — both animal and human — move with a natural and realistic ease that was lacking in their predecessors, we never lose sight of the fact that we are watching something that is intended to be a fantasy and, as such, does not exist in the world as we know it.
Accordingly, an outcry arose in 1992 when Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture. How could a musical fairy tale, the critics protested, be in the same league as Bugsy, JFK, The Prince of Tides, or the winner, Silence of the Lambs? While we’d certainly like to think that a plot about love and magic could triumph over darker themes espousing crime, assassination, dysfunctional relationships and cannibalism, the chilling repartee between Hannibal Lechter and Clarice bespeaks the awe in which we hold performers who define excellence in acting. Belle and her enchanted beau may have had audiences eating out of their hand but it took Anthony Hopkins and a glass of Chianti to make them run home and lock their doors at night.
Ten years later, a new category of Oscar emerged in response to the number of “cartoon” entries coming to the fore; specifically, Best Animated Feature. What will push the envelope, so to speak, will now be the question of what to do with works such as The Polar Express where the source material’s code is DNA, not binary.
WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE
Humans interacting with CGI environments and cyber counterparts isn’t really new. Tron, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Space Jam, and the Brendon Fraser box-office flop Monkeybone gave us a taste of what can happen in the altered reality of workaday homo sapiens trying to outwit the product of someone’s fertile imagination. Even prior to these, we saw Dick Van Dyke dancing with penguins in Mary Poppins and a lonely boy enlisting the aid of a mystical creature to keep a lighthouse flame burning in Pete’s Dragon. The quest to surpass physical boundaries through the elasticity of animation, however, still runs up against the obstacle of emotional rigidity when it attempts to simulate realistic facial expressions of human characters. Critics of The Polar Express have not been shy in their observations that the performance capture visages exude a level of surrealistic creepiness.
On an even broader canvas, films such as Jumanji, Dragonheart, What Dreams May Come, and Forrest Gump challenged their stars to convincingly interact with elements that transcended animation altogether and projected the semblance of being “real.” In Dragonheart, for instance, Dennis Quaid quipped that he delivered most of his lines to a tennis ball on a string which was raised and lowered to correspond to where the dragon’s head would later be digitally filled in. Forrest Gump — which won kudos for Hanks and Zemekis — introduced us to the seamless stitching of fictional characters into historically documented tableaus with non-fiction icons.
The cinematic evolution of today’s architectural realms as well would probably cause Cecille B. DeMille’s mouth to drop open. Remember Gladiator? With the exception of impossibly tidy streets and freshly painted bazaars, production crews were not only able to build Rome in a day but to hit the “delete” button afterwards at a speed faster than Nero could fiddle. Contrast this to the 1939 epic, Gone With the Wind, in which the burning of Atlanta spectacularly dispatched the physical sets that were no longer needed for filming.
Should the phenomenon of virtual landscapes, habitats and transportation continue at its present pace, at what point will set designers and their construction staff become victims of technological outsourcing? While Zemekis offers the argument that Van Allsburg’s illustrations could not have been incorporated into The Polar Express without the advances of digital manipulation, one can counter that Sondheim’s Broadway musical Sunday in the Park with George accomplished the same mystique glitz-free with the number “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by integrating live actors with free-standing backdrops and props.
GIMMICKS VS. GOLDMINES
As a friend of mine once remarked about the subject of magic, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who like to be mirthfully dazzled by a clever illusion and those who absolutely have to crawl into the box with a bunch of tools and take it apart so they can understand how it was created.
The same can be said about the movies. The mystique of cinema has fascinated the public ever since its debut a century ago. While the question of “How did they do that?” has always been pondered, it didn’t take filmmakers very long to realize that they could stir just as much interest in their work by revealing all of their tricks as they could by heavily advertising an upcoming release. In recent years, in fact, it has practically become de rigueur to shoot companion documentaries with behind-the-scenes footage, analysis of all of the special effects, and interviews with the cast and crew on why their film is so brilliant and ahead of its time.
To return to the analogy of magicians, this is akin to explaining the intricacies of a trick prior to performing it as opposed to pulling off a remarkable “Ta-da!” piece of enchantment and answering questions about it later. Once an audience has been prepped on what they should be looking for — not unlike the “Where’s Waldo?” craze — the irony is that they then spend more time identifying that one thing than in enjoying the big picture on its own merits.
A case in point was the much touted Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow starring Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. The hype of this futuristic — yet quirkily 1930’s vintage—story is that the entire film was blue-screened and that there were no actual sets. While it calls upon a certain level of discipline for the actors to be conscientious about their marks and point of focus in order to mesh their actions with the as-yet-uncreated backdrops, the reality is that the plot itself wasn’t of sufficient and compelling interest to keep it in movie theaters for more than about three weeks.
There is no question but that the evolution of film in the past 100 years has been phenomenal. Each stunning new effect that is mastered has encouraged dreamers to continue coloring outside the lines, striving to eclipse the competition and bringing cinema to platforms that its originators could never have imagined. The more gimmickry employed to sell them, however, the more we tend to move away from what brings people out of their homes and into the theaters to begin with: the promise of a well told story.
Therein is the goldmine of true possibilities, whether it’s the coexistence of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances or tales of those who by virtue of extraordinary talent, origin or intellect are forced to function in ordinary times. As I reiterate to my clients and students, when a story is dependent upon copious amounts of “glitz” in order to make it work, there’s a strong chance that either the heart of the matter will be summarily dropped on the cutting room floor or else never existed at all.
With The Polar Express, Van Allsburg’s vision left the station with the sweet objective of showing us a young boy’s journey to the North Pole. Sadly, its segue to film two decades later showed us instead how good intentions can get derailed, no matter how much money is along for the adventure.
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Here are links to all of Christina’s 2004 columns: