Searching…An Innovative Way to Tell a Story

Searching sets up a story we’ve seen before — a parent searching for their child — but does it in a uniquely technical fashion while cleverly setting up red herrings and clues along the way.

What makes Searching unique is obvious — the story is told through screens, on computers and cell phones. It could have come across hokey and gimmicky, much like found footage films, or by what I assume Unfriended was received (has anyone seen that movie? Let me know)

The father, played by John Cho, does 90% of his sleuthing online, digging through his daughter’s social media, searching terms he’s unfamiliar with (#parents am I right?) and communicating via text, messenger and FaceTime. This creates a story that wouldn’t be better told in a traditional format. The discovery and the unearthing of Margot’s secrets is through her social media, so why not present the film in such a format that can take great advantage of that?

The animations and screen captures were smooth, transitioning from search results to videos and FaceTime conversations in a manner that reflects a person’s frantic search online for answers.

Searching pic 1

We’re introduced to the storytelling convention in a less frantic sense, in a sort of Up-style montage of moments that detail this family’s life on the computer. There’s an incredible amount of character development told through the Windows startup page to the photos and videos that document this family’s journey.

As details about the case are discovered and Cho’s character delves deeper into the mystery, clues are simultaneously revealed to the viewer. Eagle eyed observers might even note key plot details before Dad finds them, but it’s done in a way that doesn’t make you anxious for the characters to catch up with your conclusions. The twists are really well done and the ending features a spectacular 180 reversal.

It’s a really well done movie from both a technical and a writing standpoint. If you’d like to delve more into the making of the movie, check out the special features (available on the RedBox rental, so no excuses) and read this article AFTER you’ve seen the movie (be warned: spoilers). With this movie, the viewer’s search for the truth should coincide with the father’s.

The Slick Design of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

There’s a lot of great things going on in the animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The minority lead is incredibly engaging and the first in-motion Spider-Gwen was everything I wanted her to be. I’m secretly hoping she’ll get her own film some day. Combine that with a worthwhile story, heartfelt interactions and pulse-pounding action — you’ve got yourself a fun ride.

Comic Style +

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Having this story animated (instead of live action) allowed for some stylistic choices that celebrated both animated and print formats. Especially after Miles gets his powers, the story is presented more and more like a comic book, including thought bubbles and descriptions that pop up on screen. Unlike its comic roots, the film uses these staples of the print format in dynamic ways. Thought bubbles pop up after Miles as he’s running down a street, panel lines slash through the screen and present multiple images at once. It’s a comic on speed and you can’t look away.

Color

color

Coupled with the general layout of a comic book, the animation is lush with vibrant color. The colors are as vivid as our main character himself, who sings to get himself in a good mood and is full of energy. Adding this to our smooth animation, and 2-D/3-D presentation (even when viewed in standard format, you can tell how much depth the 3-D version has) and you’ve got a visually breathtaking actiony romp. But even with that color and fun, there’s still some darkness to be had, making this a film that’s not just emotionally investing for young viewers.

Otherworldly Designs

Into-The-Spider-Verse-All-Spider-Men

Another great stylistic choice was to have the spider-people of different universes look and behave different. Spider-Ham (yes, a spider-pig) is more cartoonish and uses weapons that would have been at home in a Bugs Bunny cartoon). Spider-Noir is depicted in black and white and he can’t see color. Peni Parker is decidedly more anime. This design choice follows when we get glimpses into their worlds in their intros and near the end. Different shapes, color-schemes and physics accompany the buildings and sights populating from the other worlds.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a fantastic addition to the Marvel universe, referencing all the Spider-Men that came before it while securing its own important place in heroic cinema. It’s a fantastic animated film, but it’s also just a really good film in its own right.

To Film School or Not to Film School?

^ Is that even the right question?

Often I hear from people new to the film industry who want to know if they should attend film school to get a leg up. I can’t give them a straight answer.

Years ago, I too was wondering the same thing. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, with nary a film production to be seen, I didn’t know how I was supposed to “get in” especially when I couldn’t afford a plane ticket to LA, let alone the cost of living there while trying to break into a notoriously difficult industry.

I eventually found myself completing a Masters of Fine Art in Film and Television at the Savannah College of Art & Design. My time there was awash in good memories — I met some amazing friends I’ll carry with me the rest of my days, as well as picking up select skills — such as the Steadicam — that I may not have had the opportunity to try out otherwise. But still, I sometimes look back on my time at SCAD and wonder “Was it worth it? Should I have skipped the school?”

If you’re wondering why I still have those doubts, even after having graduated four years ago, it’s because when I look at my student loans, I begin to feel faint and need to find something else to do. It’s also because of how I calculated what I was paying per class period, and certain classes that didn’t live up to expectations.

Some of the best film makers and cinematographers I know personally today were self taught or were brought up in the ranks of hierarchy on film sets over time. I also know some who went through film school and have nothing more than an ego to show for it.

The answer to “How do I break into the industry?” is never going to be a simple formula and no two paths are the same.

So, how do you break in?

The most common paths are variations on these — please note that these are aimed towards the Camera Department since that is mostly what I’m familiar with:

1.) Film School: After or during school, start getting on “real” sets, most likely as a production assistant (read: entry level) or, rarely, jump right into camera assisting/producer assisting/etc.

2.) Work at a Camera or Equipment Rental House, gaining knowledge and experience working with the equipment. Get hired on sets. Work your way up.

3.) Get on sets as an office or set production assistant. Slowly migrate into the department you are interested in. Impress people and try to move up the ladder.

4.) Self-taught. Start by making really bad films. Learn from your mistakes. Keep going. Self finance your passion.

5.) Be related to Spielberg/Nolan/some big whig in the industry already.

All this circles back to whether or not film school is the answer for you. I don’t feel my job is to convince you one way or the other. Rather, I feel a list of pros and cons is more helpful, to allow you to make an educated choice.

PROS

Direct access to professional equipment without rental costs and insurance.

Professional networking at the student level. Film school is where many of the greats of filmmaking met for the first time. Maybe that will be your story too.

Directors/Cinematographers/Producers who are easily accessible because they’re grading your homework as professors at the school.

Amenities: professional equipment, film festivals sponsored by the school, meet and greets with industry professionals who might talk to your class.

CONS

Expensive. Tuition, books, and financing your own films costs serious money.

Certain Classes. I’m still mad about Professional Development, a class in which we basically paid full price to just work on our own stuff.

Limited scope. Students who are into non-traditional forms of telling a story, such as with experimental film, may feel limited by the standard Hollywood method taught at school.

Lack of resources. Along with the pro of having equipment and space to borrow for free are the limits of actually getting those things when they are in high demand.

In many ways, attending SCAD was the best thing I’ve done to get myself into the right trajectory for what I’m doing now. I’d never have picked up the Steadicam and I’d never have made the connections I did. But I also know that it would have been possible (but not guaranteed) to get where I am now without the tuition cost.

Deciding whether or not to attend film school is a big decision. Until you’ve made that decision, you can check out this book:

bookAmazon link

It’s about time for something like A Wrinkle in Time

I finally saw A Wrinkle in Time, via Red Box. It was a trippy, colorful, spacey adventure great for kids.

The movie made waves early in promotional days when it was revealed the typically white heroine would be portrayed by Storm Reid, a young lady who is neither typical nor white. And what a fantastic choice this casting was.

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Unfortunately, A Wrinkle in Time (2018) was not the blockbuster it really wanted to be. With a slow beginning that bogs down the pace and the hard-to-follow rules of the fantasy world, it didn’t meet high expectations.

It reminds me of the hype when Lucy (2014) came out. Forget what movie that is? So did most everybody else. But it was originally hyped to show off an actiony female heroine. It just couldn’t help the fact that it was unnervingly stupid.

But you can’t place all your expectations on one movie. You just rejoice in the fact that it exists and it signals a shift in cultural representation. 

A Wrinkle in Time could have been a bomb with white leads. It could have been a re-hash of the 2003 Canadian attempt at a television-based adaptation. When author Madeleine L’Engle saw that, she told Newsweek, “I have glimpsed it…I expected it to be bad, and it is.”

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So bad in fact that the actors refused to open their eyes in this pic. Maybe.

What’s important is that Director Ava DuVernay took the opportunity to film a very difficult to adapt novel with actors and crew of all colors, genders, etc.

To get that diverse cast and crew, DuVernay didn’t have to do anything fancy. She didn’t have an inclusion rider, or special contract. To put it simply, she just made sure the production hired great people of all kinds and colors. That’s something we need to see more of.

The 2018 version by Disney may not have made a huge profit, but it showed a young capable girl of a mixed race family, with numerous roles in her world filled by diverse people. It put a normal lens on a medium that usually paints the world in bland colors. I’d like to think more than a few young girls saw this and were inspired. And if that’s all it did? Maybe it accomplished what it set out to do.

 

Sources

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Wrinkle_in_Time

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/a_wrinkle_in_time_2018/

http://fortune.com/2018/03/12/wrinkle-in-time-ava-duvernay-inclusion-rider-diversity/

The Cinematography of A Quiet Place

This blog references this podcast interview from The Kodakery with Charlotte Bruus Christensen, cinematographer of A Quiet Place.

Charlotte-Bruus-Christensen

 

In the interview, cinematographer Charlotte Bruus described how the story dictated what type of shots they could get. Since the characters conversed mostly in American sign language with subtitles for the layman, most shots had to leave enough room for the sign language to take place. Even when they might want a close up on a face, they had to make that conscious choice that the hands had to be seen. It was done for practicality but very much dictated the look and feel of the film.

Christensen also described how she uses elements from the script and the director to add the character to her camera operating in each scene.

“I constantly work towards a word or a scene or something that the director has given me…to give that to the audience,” Charlotte Bruus Christensen said.

How do you do that? Well, you accomplish that with the lighting design, the camera movement, handheld vs. tripod… each choice adds another layer to what Christensen is saying with the camera.

“That’s the work that doesn’t really come out in the dialogue or in the set design,” she said. “That’s something that I can add. These words, I get very set what I’m aiming for with the light and with the movement. That will guide me to whether this [tracking shot] should be going fast or slow or if you zoom.”

Not all Directors of Photography will operate the camera themselves, but Christensen did. She adds an intuitive element to it, very much responding to the actors in the moment.

“When you operate yourself, you really can feel that, when a character moves his head or these little details… to me that’s very, very important to catch those moments and try and convey emotion… to move an audience. Show that emotion. To move an audience. But that’s another amazing thing about cinematography. It’s such a powerful tool.”

It’s interesting to note that part of the personality lent to the image by the cinematographer herself was also her choice to shoot in film. People balked at her choice, assuming the film would not be able to handle the dark scenes. Christensen, however, knew better.

A QUIET PLACE

Being knowledgeable with film stocks, she chose the right tools for the job. The funny thing is, shooting in film means you don’t see exactly what you’re getting through the viewfinder. Using her experience, intuition and a light meter, Christensen captured amazing visuals for an incredible film.

The (Super) Hero’s Journey

The Hero’s Journey

Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949. This book introduced the hero’s journey and popularized the theory of comparative mythology — the theory that humans have the impulse to create stories that stem from universal themes.

Campbell’s work focused on religious and historical mythology, but it didn’t take long to see this applied to fiction.

George Lucas is the first to credit Campbell with inspiring the mythological structure of Star Wars. For that reason, many look to Star Wars as a way to teach the hero’s journey, and hopefully use that formula to make more blockbusters.

heros journey graphThe steps of the hero’s journey:

  • Ordinary World
  • Call to Adventure
  • Refusal
  • Meeting with the Mentor
  • Crossing the Threshold
  • Tests, Allies, Enemies
  • Approach to Inmost Cave
  • Ordeal
  • Reward
  • The Road Back
  • Resurrection
  • Return with Elixir

The (Super)hero’s Journey

We’ve seen the classic superhero origin story a hundred times. They all have the basic formula to get our average Joe or Jane into hero-mode.

This is actually a parallel of the classic hero’s journey, retold for modern audiences and nerdy sensibilities.

The examples I use are from solo superhero movies. Ensemble films won’t be considered.

Ordinary World

  • Smallville, Kansas.
  • Gotham before Thomas and Martha Wayne are murdered.
  • A day in the life of a bullied NYC teenager.

These are the humble beginnings of our heroes. This is what is supposed to make the protagonist relatable and have us invested in what happens to them.

Call to Adventure

  • Tony Stark’s caravan is attacked and and creates his first Iron Man suit.
  • When things seem to be going well for Wade Wilson, he is diagnosed with cancer.
  • Steve Rogers signs up for the service and is picked for the super soldier serum.

Closely related to the inciting incident, this is when it’s clear that our hero’s world is about to change.

Refusal

Some of our heroes, especially those in the Chosen One subcategory, will refuse the job they are meant to do. Superman in Man of Steel spends much of his adult life hiding who he is until events force him to intervene.

This refusal is then reversed, sometimes by a traumatic event or some conflict that only our hero can resolve. It’s every villain origin and early death scene.

Meeting with the Mentor

  • Alfred Pennyworth for Batman.
  • Pa Kent and Jor-El for Superman.
  • Dr. Strange being trained by The Ancient One.
  • Uncle Ben, whose famous words are so pivotal they could only be uttered in one trilogy.

These are the people who shape our protagonists into the heroes they will become. It is their words that are repeated in our hero’s darkest hour. Remember, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Crossing the Threshold

Our hero can willingly start their adventure, or they can be pushed with tragedy or conflict. Oftentimes in superhero stories, the parents or a loved one is killed off or taken, pushing them to seek justice.

Uncle Ben dies to push Peter into becoming a hero and not just some punk goofing off in a costume. This can sometimes be the direct result of The Refusal — good guilt-causing material for an angsty teen hero.

Learning from — and losing — the mentor is a key part on this journey. It is when they lose that person (Pa Kent and Uncle Ben like to die all the time for a reason) that the hero comes of age.

Tests, Allies, Enemies

  • Spider-man taking down a number of unnamed and easy foes.
  • Iron Man bombing the enemy as a one-man army.
  • Montages, montages, montages.

I’ve also heard this called the “fun and games” section of the story. This is when our hero is testing their limits, saving people and enjoying their power. Can be done in montage mode. It’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt…

Approach to Inmost Cave

  • Scott Lang sneaking in and being caught on his last heist.
  • Clark Kent meeting with a priest before going to face Zod, who could destroy him.
  • Bruce Wayne, thrown into a pit and climbing the worst rock wall ever.
  • Logan, taking a shot of serum, knowing it’s his last fight.

Ordeal, Reward, The Road Back

The finale. Big explosions, toppling buildings, mayhem and property damage.

The hero after the big battle, scarred but triumphant (maybe). Cheering crowds optional.

The opposite of the Call to Adventure.

Resurrection

  • Bruce healing after his back is broken.
  • Hancock shot.
  • Superman poisoned by kryptonite.

A couple of my examples are a little too on-the-nose, but hospital and near death scenes are part and parcel with our superheroes.

This is the lowest point, the near-death moment from which the hero must rise.

Return with Elixir

 

This is the moment of triumph when our hero has prevailed and we look forward to fighting another day.

At the end of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, we see Batman hanging up the cape and cowl for a more ordinary life. In Deadpool, our hero is reunited with his love and they jam to Careless Whisper. As one should.

Flying off into the sunset

In the Richard Donner Superman films, Christopher Reeve’s Superman flew around the world and smiled at the camera. That motif was even carried into Superman Returns, which was a loose sequel. The end of Sam Raimi’s Spider-man films we see Spidey swinging into action.

We like the idea that our hero keeps going, adventure never ends and everything will be alright.

It’s also a good way to end if you want a bushel of sequels.

Sources:

The Hero’s Journey – Mythic Structure of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth

For more insight into the Hero’s Journey, check out:

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler.

 

Teaching through example: Zootopia

Plot/synopsis:

Zootopia is about go-getter bunny Judy Hopps, who defies her family’s wishes and fulfills her dream of becoming a police officer in the city of Zootopia. Only problem is: nobody takes this tiny bunny seriously, and she’s delegated to meter maid duties. She gets interested in the case of missing animals across the city and is determined to find an answer, even if at the expense of her job.

Even from the trailer, it was obvious that this would be a metaphor for females breaking the glass ceiling and working extra hard to prove themselves. The writers chose to make Judy a bunny: an innocent, small, traditionally-helpless creature that represents the stereotypes associated with the feminine. The rest of her fellow police officers are typical predators, or at least large formidable prey like her bison chief. Nobody expects this bunny to succeed.

That makes her all the more eager to prove herself. “Anybody can be anything” is this bunny’s attitude, and she lives it to the fullest. She is truly a positive role model for the children going to see this film.

What’s most important–besides the delightful humor, artful design, and excellent voice acting–are the overriding themes of racism and sexism leading to a frightening world. We see the sexism through Judy’s eyes, in her pursuit of her dreams. We see the racism between predators and prey, and especially when stereotyping a species (or ethnicity.) Our other main character is Nick Wilde, a fox, who is labeled as shifty and untrustworthy because of his species.

Judy proves herself better than most by not assuming the worst of Nick the fox. In fact, she rolls her eyes at her parents offering her “fox repellant” and sticks up for Nick in an ice cream shop that tries to deny him service.

There will be somebody, somewhere out there, that thinks this movie is preachy, and that it didn’t need to be made. I would disagree with that hypothetical person. This movie is important, and it shows themes that are integral to helping kids understand at an early age that just because someone is different from them, doesn’t mean they are bad.

Every generation has its teaching models like this.

Examples:

Ferngully (1992): A boy named Zak is brought down to fairy size to see the plight of the fairies when a logging company destroys their home. It’s been like, 20 years since I’ve seen this, but I figure it was as good an early example as any.

Doug (1991–1994): Hey 90’s kids, remember this Nick cartoon series? The characters were varying shades, from beige to purple to blue. These colors were never mentioned, and the stories were average woes befalling the preteen and teenager.

Cats Don’t Dance (1997): A movie that played heavily on themes of disclusion and racism, set in ’30s Hollywood. The animals were the minority figure. They were show people, but never the star. Just look at Miss Dimple’s infuriating golden locks and psycho stare and tell me she doesn’t represent institutionalized racism.

Milestone Comics and Static Shock (2000–2004): Milestone Comics was a company founded in 1993 whose titles were published by DC, and notably was more conscious of promoting minority superheroes. This eventually led to the creation of a cartoon series, Static Shock. The cartoon centered around a teenager named Virgil Hawkins who witnesses a gang war and through an accident ends up with superpowers. This show was an excellent balance between different races, and the traditional “love interest” girls were as smart and capable as the guys.

Judy-Hopps-in-Zootopia

Judy Hopps. Go get ’em, Tiger. Or um…bunny.

Why bother?

Why bother showing race issues through children’s media? I am so glad you asked, hypothetical reader.

I think we need this gentle reminder here and there that there are all different kinds of people out there,  and the world is simply a better place with inclusion and variety. Films, TV shows, and even printed media is so full of white and male representation as to think of it as the baseline for normal. That’s a problem.

Unfortunately, children absorb a lot of what they see and experience. If they keep seeing action movies with buff, white male protagonists, they can’t imagine women or minorities being the hero. If they see one “token” minority character who is present to take the brunt of the jokes, they might start thinking it’s fine to make fun of the different kid at school. Kids learn by example. Where parents leave gaps, the world fills it in. We just want to be sure they’re filling it in with the right stuff.

If we need to teach such lessons through cartoon animals, then so be it.

Spoilery Section:

This is the review section. Here there be spoilers. You have been warned.

This film plays on expectations, as much for the kids’ sake as for adults. Predators vs. prey is not always clear cut. In fact, SUPER DUPER SPOILER ALERT……. it’s the prey that is the villain (no doubt a fear response against a perceived threat from predators). There’s a lot of smart political, socioeconomics at play here. I’d liken it to how some countries feud with others in anticipation of an attack, thereby creating the problem to begin with, but I don’t want to get political here.

There are a few minor missteps with the racism theme that I think go a bit too far. One is where Clawhauser calls Judy a cute bunny, and she gets all uncomfortable and says how only bunnies can call each other cute. Then later, when Nick is playing with the Assistant Mayor’s hair/wool, Judy freaks out and tells him, “You can’t touch a sheep’s wool!” These are both real-world examples of complicated race-tensions that felt a little awkward in this movie. It could have been accomplished otherwise. Maybe someone else wouldn’t think so. I’d need a second opinion.

What might seem like a misstep (but is actually an integral plot point and teaching tool) is after Officer Hopps has solved the case, she says things that are taken out of context in a press conference. She infers that predators are naturally prone to becoming “savage” (aka dangerous), and although she is just repeating information another character told her about how the animals were going crazy, she says the wrong thing to a crowd of fearful reporters who all happen to be prey animals. Good intentions but poor execution lead to Judy accidentally starting an extreme racist reaction to predators in general. One of her buddies even loses his position on the police force because “nobody wants to see a predator when they walk into the ZPD.”

These moments echo so powerfully the irrational fears against minorities that are the root of the problem. Judy only realizes belatedly how her words were taken to the extreme, and resigns in protest.

Zootopia was such a fantastic movie that doesn’t have to talk down to kids to be enjoyable. If you haven’t gotten a chance yet, I suggest you go see it yourself.