A message to story enthusiasts and script writers alike.

DISCLAIMER: This topic only concerns script terms indirectly and aims more at the format of cinema itself. I apologize if I have posted this at the wrong area.

I somewhat consider myself an entertainment geek and an artist of sorts. Since I first saw Jurassic Park at the big screen back at 1994 I've been dreaming of lots of things, one of them being the career of a film-making effect artist. As I've stated before a lot of that dreaming owes it's existence to creative geniuses like Stan Winston and Michael Crichton as well as the creatures that weren't some fictional aliens, dragons or unicorns but real living beings as tangible as a tiger or an elephant. I still write scripts occasionally and make drawings of my ideas because I enjoy the process. But lately my passion towards cinema as a format has taken a severe plummet. Explaining the reason behind that is far from simple because it would have to be directed towards groups of mixed moviegoers, artists and fanatics who have their own personal reasons to love and hate movies. Yet it is worth addressing. 

Let us start with a word that I believe anyone with a decent IQ understands well enough; storytelling. As a term it's meaning nowadays frustrates the heck out of me as a film fan. Stories have been around as long as humanity itself has existed, ranging from cave paintings and stone carvings to all sorts of writing. Humans are social creatures and their drive to communicate has travelled with them right to the modern day. There are many formats aside text that we utilize to express messages such as dance, comic books and moving images, the last one having evolved from being a mere recording of a living space to something that is way more technical.

I can't help but wonder where exactly our kind has gone so wrong as to nearly forgetting the actual art behind story in movies? Just what exactly do I mean with the claim? To try to demonstrate it I'm going to use some examples that apparently belong to the same genre as my beloved movie(yes, I love Jurassic Park).

What am I trying to prove by showing these trailers? Why do I even bother saying anything? Well, from a personal standpoint the meaning behind them is disrespectful.......for all the wrong reasons. You see, there is a reason for why this kind of entertainment exists and a lot of the people who made it know it just as well as I do. A moronic demand leads to a moronic supply. It wouldn't surprise me if many of these film-makers actually originate from the audience that keeps paying money to watch this garbage, the biggest reason for why it remains garbage. You pay on garbage, you get garbage. Yeah, I just called it garbage, shame on me. I know that there are always people who are passionate in disagreeing with points that oppose their personal form of entertainment. But the thing is, not everyone can appreciate something that is essentially stupid the same way. Why? Not everyone has to enjoy stupidity to enjoy something. I must be a crazy troll for rejecting what is essentially a popular trend. 

When it comes to potential, which one of the two do you prefer?

- Fascinating forms of prehistoric wildlife that do what the gene pool has made them do since their conceiving being encountered by flawed but competent human beings.

- Convenient, personality void killing machines encountered by convenient cannon fodder morons, red shirts and blow-up models that use them as target practice.

Does a good story really detract from the entertaining aspects of a movie? If something is boring or dumb to a target audience there is always a reason that should be learned. Let's assume that I was a guy who had an idea for a dinosaur movie, a really good idea too, and wanted to make it a reality. All of the bureaucratic effort aside, I would succeed in making the production happen. It wraps up and my beloved homage to what I grew up with has been filmed and given it's necessary special effects to make it sell. Right? As good as the idea and execution appears I suddenly find it all thrashed to bits by bored critics and childish people alike. Despite it raking in a decent amount of money in relation to it's budget I can't help but feel a tad let down by the whole ordeal as a passionate artist. What exactly went wrong, it all made sense on paper. It's not a terrible movie because I seriously put my heart behind the story and tried to be original. Eventually the question surfaces. Just who exactly was I trying to please with my product? There are so many different preferences for the same subject as society itself comprises of divided groups, in this case in a geekdom that you didn't expect to be as divided. So it appears that I merely forced my own view of a perfect dinosaur movie to the market and ended up colliding with the other perceptions of one. 

Undeterred, I go back to the drawing board and spawn a sequel after doing research about those other group preferences to make sure that the execution fits them. The production wraps up and the new movie is released. Guess what? The same thrashing happens yet again and I quit as a film-maker. What went wrong this time? In trying to please those other tastes I completely forgot the importance of storytelling and ended up delivering something that only works as a forced gimmick to please a low denominator. This time a different question arose. Just what exactly was I trying to please?

Lowest common denominators and gimmicks make storytelling a forced excuse in meaning, a disease that threatens to turn film to a disappointing shadow of what it can be. That kind of aim isn't exactly coherent. Yet that's what modern audiences pay for and the current young generations may have even grown up learning to treat story as an excuse to justify such a gimmick. That fate lacks standard and we should all do our homework instead of running away from it. 

My personal frustration thereby originates from something not wanting to translate to a person with different preferences. I love old school puppet effects, novels and visual artistry because even in their simpler form they still translate better to someone who grew with them to appreciate them for what they are, nothing more and nothing less. I know that some will identically state their love of computer animation(I know not all of it is bad) and entertainment made by the likes of The Asylum which doesn't prove nor disprove the point that I'm trying to bring across. 

Production quality alone doesn't make storytelling educated, only a good story. Past or present form, it's still the same problem. Audiences can and do lack standards. And those(now larger) audiences are what Hollywood and smaller companies alike deliver to. Why? Easy money from easy gimmicks. All too easy. 

What do you expect from movies? How do you want to be entertained? And at what cost?

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^ Passion FTW!!!  

I keep letting my expectations down for big budget feature films notch by notch. Big Hollywood is Big Business these days, and cares about little more than the bottom line and cranking out more of whatever is trending. And at the other end there are loads of cheap made-for cable movies like what the Sy Fy channelkeeps recycling. But thankfully there are other venues now - most of the cable network series are far better than the movies that are winning Oscars. 

Ok, it's really late and I just ran out of steam. Back for more later though - expecting this to be a good thread. 

Ok - like I said - it's really late and I'm pretty loopy, but after a little time to think, let me get more on target..

There are still good movies coming out of Hollywood - but they're not special effects films. In fact I made a post on the old message board once to the effect that, in order to find a big budget special effects movie with a good story and where the effects support that story rather than overwhelm it I'd need to dig back to somewhere in the vicinity of T2 and Aliens. After that special effects films seem to have suffered some kind of Titanic accident (). Are there any later ones that I'm just not thinking of? 

Like Strider, I'll need to think about this for a while before I write at any length on the subject. But I just want to jump in early and say that most films of this type have some very simple, basic and easy to spot flaws which kill them right from the git-go and the chief among them is...........

Lack of CREDIBILITY / BELIEVABILITY.

In order for any film to be entertaining for me, I MUST feel to some extent that what I'm seeing are real people in a real situation. This is especially tested for me when I see a film that involves the supernatural. (i.e. Ghost Busters, The Gate, Raiders of the Lost Ark) Films about the supernatural have a tough sell with me sitting in the movie theater seat because the writer, director and performers must find a way to force me to push aside my beliefs about what can possibly be real and accept what I'm seeing as something I need to take seriously.

So what's the magic bullet? CHARACTERS! The heroes of a film are the single most important element of any film, even more important than the plot in my estimation, I've come to this conclusion by breaking away from thinking about what films I would like to make and instead reexamine what movies I LOVE and ask myself WHY?

It's never the special effects that make the film strong, nor the amount of action, nor the music, nor boobs, not even the plot itself because most great plots are desperately simplistic - kill the shark, destroy the space station, get away from the monster, etc. But it's the characters that make you believe the story by caring about them and their situation. If a film fails at that one singular goal, the film is a failure and I want to shut it off before it's even over because I don't care.

You can tell if a film has good characters just from the previews, they are very easy to spot. When the character Seth Brundle in the preview for the film (remake) of THE FLY squeezes open a blister on his finger and says "Is this how it starts? Am I dying?" BINGO! you are HOOKED and the film is a wild success before you even see it!

I don't want to over simplify and say that one element alone makes for a successful film because films are a collection of many performers and artisans working in concert. There are films that have had great characters that do the job of drawing you in but, the film itself later lets you down as the story just becomes stupid or boring. (for me, the remake series of Battlestar Galactica devolved to an utter disappointment at the end, but I loved the series as a whole)

But I will insist that the strength of the writing, direction and performances of the main characters in a film are the KEY to success more than any other element. I watched most of the previews you posted above and in one after another I felt I was seeing the same parade of mindless, heartless crash dummies I couldn't care less about.

Ripley & Newt, Marshal, Will & Holly, Indy & Marion, Wallace & Gromit, Han & Chewie, Ray, Peter & Egon... the list is incredibly long - and when those characters are in danger YOU CARE. Never forget that as much as the plot is important, a great storyteller is always focused on letting you know what happened to a particular person or group of people and makes you care about THEM.

Wow, OK just forget that first paragraph I wrote at the beginning where I said I wasn't going to write much right now. Ya can't tell that this is a subject I think about all the freaking time can you?

Strider.... even though I'm not nor will I ever be a fan of cg, District Nine was a great film simply because of what has been stated above..... solid original story, GREAT characters and performances, and beautifully executed effects. No one single part outshining the other, all elements coming together equally to tell an original story.

I'm always a little put off by people telling me how great the special effects are in this or that film.  That seems to be the major selling point for cinema since "The Matrix"  If they're that great, you shouldn't even notice they're there!

CGI is a fact of life in motion picture but it's no more special an effect than the one that tricks the eye into thinking the picture is moving.

There are still movies being made that exist to tell a story the best they can by whatever means, but I can't seem to find them in mainstream cinemas so often now.  I fear the picture houses are bingeing themselves to death on product with no nutritional value which I think is the point you already made....

Sorry, I can't disagree.

@ Ron - completely agreed!!! It's all about the characters. 

As an example, I've always preferred a certain kind of comedy TV show to others, but didn't really understand what the difference was until I learned about character-driven versus plot-driven stories. Now I understand - the sitcoms I like are all character-driven. There are well-developed PEOPLE who never act out of character (even if their characters may be a bit complex, allowing for contradictions now and then just like in real people). It's easier to understand if you look at the alternative --- situation-based comedy (sitcoms, though they're not all situation-based). 

Situation based comedies tend to be based on some easy formula that would work no matter what characters you plug into it. The first example off the top of my head are the misunderstanding-based comedies, like Three's Company or I Love Lucy (not saying they're bad shows - they actually had pretty decent characters in situation-based comedy). You know the formula - one character overhears something but misses a crucial piece of info and misunderstands, then things keep escalating because the misunderstanding gets worse and worse. I consider I love Lucy and Three's Company to be sort of hybrid shows, situation-based but with good characters, and not bad shows overall, but when you think about true situation-based comedy you can see why so many shows made more recently suck so bad - the comedy would be the same no matter what characters you plug in! This type of comedy writing seems to be endemic these days. It's easy, formula- based comedy and can doubtless be cranked out fast because the writers don't need to fully understand the characters or how they interact with each other, so you can just hire a bunch of minimum-wage writers and have a whole roomful of them working away - no need for good writers who know the characters and understand human interaction. Situation-based comedy often feels empty or shallow. Though to be fair I suppose character-based comedy can be pretty bad unless it's well done. 

A few related problems I've become aware of that have contributed to the sad state of the contemporary blockbuster mentality - 

  • The rise of the lone Western hero and his ascension to unethical antihero and beyond
  • An increasing dependence on the part of studios on Demographics and Focus Groups
  • A disturbing trend towards increasing narcissism of the American public, fed by these trends

With the birth of America came the idea of a lone titanic figure looming large over the landscape and conquering it - a folk hero idea personified by early American myths like Paul Bunyan. Not a god or mythological character really, just a simple American folk hero who was big and strong and ethical. America seems to lead the world in the development of this everyman hero, who very rapidly morphed into the Western Hero. He personified the American Spirit of independence - a single solitary man who stands alone against all enemies, not allied to any larger group. When the Western Hero showed up in early cinema the rest of the world loved it - the idea appeals to concepts of solitary heroism and great personal power and individuality. Really makes a man feel like a Man!

Then in the 70's he morphed into the Antihero (actually he did it in the 40's too in the Film Noir) -  sort of compass-less Western Hero devoid of clear morality and best by terrible forces he may not be able to defeat. But he was still the solitary warrior, standing tall and proud - symbol of American pride and individualism. 

And this progression, after moving through the switch from clearly good or bad pro wrestlers to morally ambivalent ones who are only in it to win it for themselves, resulted in today's hyper-badass antiheroes who basically do nothing but walk around looking like badasses (that's actually the most important part - you have to get the Power Walk down pat), never flinch, always have a ready quip, and show no fear whatsoever. It's clear the studios are well aware of the narcissistic nature of the majority of their audience and pandering to it. People love to worship these amoral superheroes and repeat their little catch-phrases - to some extent model themselves after them.

And when your main characters are all just a bunch of posturing badasses trying to out-squint each other or out-quip each other there's nobody the viewer can identify with who has any humanity or morality in them. This is all a huge sign of the decadent times we live in folks. Humanity and compassion and decency go out the window in decadent times. 

@ Fanta - I'll check out District 9 - never seen it. Also, just gotta say - the first Matrix is a great movie, but the sequels not so much. Though I guess the characters in it are all pretty badass. I think Neo has a little touch of humanity to him (as much as you can expect to wrangle from Keanu anyway.. )

There's nothing new about action and spectacle taking over from character and story to sell a film, though perhaps it's only recently that it has taken over the big budget blockbusters to such a degree.  But a few decades ago, that spectacle cost a lot - you had to hire the Italian army to provide 10,000 roman soldiers, not just brew them up in CGI, and actually go to amazing locations or build some major sets.  So maybe you thought more about where to use them for the most effect, and still knew you needed a story and characters to carry the film.    

Funny, for me, Jurassic Park was nearly the last film where spectacle still worked to drag you in to see something you hadn't seen before.  Though, looking at those trailers, it comes up pretty well in the story department in comparison.  ( Still, those do look like cheap exploitation flicks, riding on the coat-tails of Jurassic Park and other A list films - a bit harsh to judge the whole industry by those.) But now, well into the digital era, spectacle is devalued.   Cgi is so commonplace, who cares - you need story more than ever.    

I can look at just one filmmaker, to see a downward progression.  Peter Jackson did some pretty good low budget films, then really pulled off Lord of the Rings better than anyone might have expected.   It had, and needed, a high standard of effects work to tell the story, but PJ also "got" the characters and story.   Then he did Kong, an overlong, overindulgent overdose of too many monsters going on and on, completely forgetting what Cooper and Schoedsack knew about keeping the story moving, even if you had to cut a spider pit sequence.  (And lots of motion does not mean the story is moving.)   But - Kong fights 3 tyrannosaurs, not one, and swinging from vines too, how could that not be better than the original?   And now he's padded out the slender story of the Hobbit to 3 long parts, purely (I think) to rake in the bucks from getting the audience to pay to see a 3 movie franchise.   I haven't even gone to see part 1, despite being a fan of Tolkien since the sixties, and knowing the world will look as beautiful, and the effects work will be as well done as in LOTR.  Because it looks like he's forgotten about the story.   

You can keep pushing up the body count and the size of the explosions, and cutting out the draggy bits where characters show a bit of themselves, to try and overcome the diminishing returns from a jaded audience - or you could possibly recognise that it's not the only way to go. 

The couple of films that come to mind where the visual effects still made an impression on me is where they were used in a different way.   I'm thinking of What Dreams may Come, with it's world made of paint daubs, and the more recent Life of Pi with views into the depths of the ocean, and a tiger I just couldn't pick as cgi.  And neither of those was a car chase/shoot-em-up/ action film, they were attempting (whether you think they succeeded or not) to be more.

Oddly, in movie terms the term "High Concept" appears to mean the opposite of what I might have thought the words meant.   The films that are worth remembering, and thinking about, that actually contain concepts, are more often independent films with lesser known actors.    

To sum up the other points made:

Despite it's visual production quality a plot does not make the story but credible characters that you can care for in any situation. A lack of that is self-defeating to the format which no visual illusion can save.

Like many of you might remember, just prior to starting his work on Prometheus Ridley Scott basically said in an interview that to him science fiction is a dead genre. I can somewhat agree with that mostly due to it lacking real credibility in comparison to real science. Maybe it's because it is impossible to keep innovating the same basic plot of "discovery" endlessly in fiction before you get trapped inside a literal wall that such a progress unavoidably builds for itself. I think the best sci-fi stories not only have credible characters but also don't pretend to be more innovative than the reality that science itself is confined to. Yet people always want more. And more. And more. And more, etc. Back when science fiction first began it's innovative possibilities were new and there was always something to look forward to. Do we have that kind of luxury today? Heck no!

The threat of dumbed down crutch gimmickry regurgitation isn't limited to just sci-fi, fantasy and comedy but any show enterprise whether it's movies, video games, comics, heck, anything that concerns entertainment. I'm not saying "abandon entertainment", it's too easy to use one's own index finger to point the blame to someone or something else. We are all guilty to some extent. What I believe works the best is thinking through the message that one wants to send, remaining educated with said opinion the best way they can and really aiming to get said message through the right way. That, my friends, is a basic skill set that a budget alone can not buy.

YOU TAKE THAT BACK! HUFF! HUFF! 

Strider said:

I think Neo has a little touch of humanity to him (as much as you can expect to wrangle from Keanu anyway.. )

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