Wonder Woman has opened my eyes.

So, I was listening to the Wonder Woman episode of The Story Toolkit podcast, and I have to say it was a major eye opener. The episode itself is about the Wonder Woman movie, and during the show the host Bassim al-Wakil laid out something I had no idea about, but which makes absolute perfect sense.

You see, I found the Wonder Woman movie a mess in terms of storytelling, theme and kind’ve in general, and Bassim not only helped to explain exactly why, but he also taught me something about how Hollywood is now making films I didn’t know. In particular, Bassim outlined that the way they’re making these big tentpole movies has changed, largely due to the heavy levels of effects involved and the limited time they have to make them.

In short, since they only have a year to make these films, what they’re doing is coming up with a rough outline for the film, figuring out what the big setpiece sequences are going to be, and then beginning work on those before the script is actually completed! Why is this important? Well, he used Wonder Woman as a good example.

He pointed out that the big setpiece action sequences have little to no dialog in them, and then none of what is in them refers to anything outside that particular setpiece sequence. In other words, in a scene like Wonder Woman crossing no man’s land, the whole story of that sequence is all within that sequence and doesn’t actually connect to anything else in the film. This is because, for all intents and purposes, it is a little self-contained mini-movie within the larger film, and the same for the other big action sequences. It HAS to be this way, because they didn’t know what the final script it would be put into would look like.

Then, he noted that the scenes in between the big event scenes are all packed to the gills with exposition. Like, solid wall-to-wall characters filling in the story, because that time spent in the effects scenes is basically wasted screen time that is only connected to the main story through characters. They are attempting to tell the story of the movie during the cracks between the big event effects scenes, which makes it awkward and forced.

For those of the video game generation, think of the big effects scenes as the parts would be playing, and the exposition scenes as the pre-rendered cut scenes and you’ll have the right idea. The movie is literally a series of action scenes with the story bits just there to connect them all together.

So what? You might ask. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that in a good and well told story, everything in the movie from the scenes, to the dialog, to the actions, to the costumes and sets and everything else is there for the purpose of telling and enhancing that story. There is a clear theme being developed, and subtext to the story that the audience reacts to, and which helps to build a connection between the characters and audience.

Think of it as the difference between Team A, professional basketball team who train and play together, and Team B, a bunch of professional players from different teams stuck together for the purposes of the game. While Team B might have some amazing players, it will never be as good as Team A because there won’t be any unity the way they play. Team A work as a unit, while Team B will always be individuals playing their own game and not coordinating with each other.

The current crop of big event Superhero movies (and effects movies in general it seems) are all Team B. Uneven collections of individual sequences that may or may not work well together, and which lack focus and coherence.

This really struck home when I thought about the recent Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2– when it came out, I think it was my friend Jack who pointed out that you could literally take the major sequences of the film and stick them up on YouTube as individual videos and they’d work perfectly fine. Yes, there was a big story idea there surrounding them, but they worked fine by themselves, and didn’t have to be watched as part of a greater film for the most part. The end result was a flat and uneven movie that did have enjoyable parts, but which really didn’t work as coherent film built up around setups and payoffs within the story.

This is as opposed to Guardians of the Galaxy (Vol.1) which has a clear story being told from start to finish that for the most part links together and has a dramatic through-line you can follow. Likely because, unlike it’s sequel (or Wonder Woman) it had sufficient pre-production time to plan things out before it was produced.

This also explains why the earliest set photos and videos from the next Avengers film were all indoor alien sets and green screens with the major cast members there for filming. They were making all the major effects sequences first, and then would do the parts which fill in all the details later. And who knows if they had a script finished at the time they started it or not? Civil War clearly didn’t, looking back at it and how uneven that film is as well. (Spiderman wasn’t even part of the film when Civil War went into production, for example.)

Now, maybe I’m exaggerating how bad this is for film, after all, these are meant to be big bland blockbusters designed to wow audiences with their visuals more than their deep character arcs. However, I don’t consider this a good development because while it might not be why the last few Marvel movies have been so flat and uneven, it certainly isn’t helping matters. And now that I know what to look for, I think my enjoyment of these films is probably going to take another dip.

Thanks Bassim! 😛

Rob

DNA Podcast 044 – Musical Brains

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In this episode, Don and Rob are joined by their friend Richard Moule to discuss music and how it affects us. The trio explore the physical processes behind our reactions and interactions with music and discuss how music and humans evolved together over time. The three also delve into music as soundtrack, and discuss the ways in which moviemakers use music to control and shape the emotions of the audience. All this, and  why John Williams owes Gustav Holst royalties is waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

DNA PODCAST 043 – POST APOCALYPTIC RPGS

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In this episode, Don and Rob are joined again by their friend Chad to discuss Post-Apocalyptic (Tabletop) Role Playing Games. The three discuss the different ways in which an RPG can be Post-Apocalyptic, the importance of post-apocalyptic hygiene, and then go through the history of the Post-Apocalyptic gaming genre with side trips into movies, anime and pop-culture. All this, and why The Flintstones is a post-apocalyptic setting, is waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

DNA PODCAST 041 – REMAKES, SEQUELS AND REBOOTS. OH MY!

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In this episode, Don and Rob sit down to discuss the issues involved with remakes, prequels, sequels and reboots, and why at best they’re a tough act to pull off well, and at worst they’re totally awful. Along the way, they delve into the nature of story itself and how stories reflect the writers and society. All that, and why the Ice Cream Man was an important figure in Star Wars lore (at least according to Don), is waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

DNA Podcast 039 – Bad Movies We Love

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In this episode, Don and Rob are joined by their friend Chad to talk about the movies that they know are awful, but can’t help but have soft spots in their hearts for. This journey takes the trio from classic 50’s monster movies, to the heights of 80s cheese and the depths of Asia’s cinematic vaults. Thrill to Chad’s love of Ed Wood! Stare in shock at Don’s encyclopedic knowledge of 80’s horror! Wonder at Rob’s passion for backwoods monsters! All this, and Don’s dramatic twist surprise that Rob and Chad didn’t see coming, are waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

The Kung Fu Puppetry of Taiwan

Pili Puppet show at Taoyuan International Airport, Taiwan

Pili Puppet show at Taoyuan International Airport, Taiwan. Picture by Harris Tsam

 

As far as I know, Taiwan is one of the few places where puppetry is not only appreciated, but where puppet shows are shown on national television. In particular, the Pili programs of gloved puppetry shows have continued to capture the imaginations of young Taiwanese with their creative and colourful puppet storytelling.

The credit for upholding the long lasting popularity of Hand Puppet Shows in Taiwan, no doubt, belongs to the Huang family. Through their creative performances and their skillful management, they continue to find new ways to evolve the Hand Puppet Shows. Ultimately, the Huang family had developed the famous PiLi Dynasty with the PiLi Puppet Theatre. Following the current trends of modern society and the technological media- television became the new performing stage of the Puppet Shows and delivered this theatrical artistry to even a much broader audience. In its effort to attract the young viewers of the new generation, PiLi Puppet Theatre continued to create new and interesting concepts in their stories, including- illusionary time and space themes and action-packed Chinese kung-fu sequences. Now, the Puppet Show’s stage and presentation techniques can now expand to a different level of possibilities.  From e-pili.com.tw

During my own time in Taiwan, I have seen first hand how popular these shows are, as there are specialty stores selling copies of the puppets and related merchandise and even a Pili-themed museums. The puppets themselves are so beautiful, I was tempted to buy one just for display.

How beautiful are they? Watch this amazing 2010 opening for one of the Pili TV series:

 

There have been several attempts to bring these shows over for English audiences as well, the first was an international release of Legend of the Sacred Stone, a somewhat rare film that has garnered a 7.3/10 rating on IMDB and a small cult following for it’s crazy-ness. You can see a sample here:

 

The other was in 2006, when Cartoon Network took one of the Pili series and dubbed it into a show called Wulin Warriors. Sadly, as is often done with foreign non-animated properties (and some animated ones as well!) the dubbers decided to have “some fun” with it, and “liven it up”. So while the visuals might still give you some of the spirit of the original, the dub itself and the creative changes seem targeted squarely at 8-10 year old boys. Someone has put all 13 episodes up on YouTube, if you can get through that many…

And that character that rambles on about pizza and makes bad jokes? In the original show, he’s a deaf mute. (I guess now we know why!) I haven’t seen the original, but I imagine it’s a heck of a lot more watchable. The only redeeming thing about this one is the beautiful puppetwork.

Anyhow, if you happen to come across one of these Pili productions or characters, now you know what they are. Unfortunately, there’s no fansubbed versions of the shows out there, and unless you speak Mandarin you won’t be able to follow the originals well. My own Mandarin isn’t up to the task, yet, but maybe someday.

More about Taiwan puppet culture in this short 5 minute documentary:

Rob

DNA PODCAST 006 – A NEW YEARS LOOK AT 2015 AND 2016

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Rob and Don are joined by their friend Chad to discuss the nerdly films of 2015. What was awesome? What barely made the grade? And what didn’t the trio like from 2015? Then we forge on into 2016, and discuss why a new film version of The Little Prince excites us more than Batman v. Superman, why Yo-Kai Watch may or may not be the next Pokemon, and why Pokemon GO! may result in kids getting a little more than just fresh air! All this, and a heaping helping of Nerd Rage are waiting for you in this New Years episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs!

Listen here!

Podcast- Department of Nerdly Affairs Episode 004- Satanic Panic

Rob and Don explore the Ritual Satanic Abuse panic that gripped America during the 1970s and 1980s and how the game Dungeons and Dragons became wrapped up in it. Then, in the second half of the show, the pair dig deep into the cinematic roots that laid the groundwork for Satanism’s grip over the American psyche of the period. All this and 2000 Maniacs are waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

Listen here!

Rob

The Street Fighter

When I mention the name Street Fighter, most of you probably picture something connected with this…

This is pretty natural, since the Street Fighter series of video games is a serious contender for the most popular game series of all time, and is without a doubt the best of the console arcade fighting games. However, prior to 1991’s release of Street Fighter 2: The World Warrior, for almost twenty years people would have had a completely different picture in their heads. This one…

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1974’s The Street Fighter is perhaps one of the greatest martial arts movies ever made. The short version is that at the start of the 70’s Bruce Lee helped to create a martial arts movie boom, and the Japanese company Toei decided to get in on the action by producing a series of what could almost be called Karate Exploitation movies. Kung Fu was big, so they decided to cash in by producing Karate movies, and their flagship film, The Street Fighter, was based around a rising action star name Sonny Chiba.

The Street Fighter was released in Japan, and then worldwide to massive audience acclaim, and if you watch it then it’s not hard to tell why. The movie is shot surprisingly well with a decent budget, the script is just strong enough to keep it interesting, Chiba is charismatic as heck, and the fights are extremely well choreographed. But, on top of all that, the movie has a unique twist- Terry Tsuguri (Chiba) isn’t a heroic character at all, he’s a bastard of the first order who is more like an chaotic force of nature than a lead character. It’s a movie about lesser villains fighting worse villains, and the innocent people caught between them, and that gives the audience something different than the usual good vs. evil fare that tends to fill martial arts movies.

So, if you’re in the mood for some brutal karate action (it was the first film in American history to earn an X-Rating for violence) with a sense of style and one of the coolest theme songs of the 70’s, then check it out here on YouTube.


 

What Akira Kurosawa can teach us about writing

I recently watched an excellent short analysis of some of director Akira Kurosawa’s film-making techniques by Tony Zhou, and it got me thinking about how we prose writers could apply some of Kurosawa’s techniques to our own work.

So, before we begin, take the time to enjoy Tony’s short 8-minute video. It’s well done, and just watching it makes me want to run out and watch all of Kurosawa’s films just for their sheer artistry and beauty…

Akira Kurosawa – Composing Movement from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

Okay, now you’re up to speed, let’s talk about how some of his key ideas can be applied to writing.

Now, my first takeaway from Kurosawa is the obvious one- nothing in a story should be wasted. Everything down to the last period should be in a story for a reason, and should be working to make that story into the best possible story you can make it. Since as a writer you have absolute control over what’s on that page, and what your reader perceives, you can control what they see much like a camera does, and like Kurosawa you should be using every tool at your disposal to bring your story to life with the greatest effect.

Let’s look at a few specifics:

The Environment

One of the first things Zhou discusses is Kurosawa’s masterful use of the environment- Kurosawa uses it to create both visual stimulation and to show the mental states of characters. While it might be trickier for we prose writers to use the environment to create direct visual stimulation, it’s definitely a good reminder that we shouldn’t underestimate the power of weaving the environment into our writing. It’s very easy to write everything as happening during sunny days and breezy evenings, but aren’t you missing an opportunity if you do so? Think about what environmental conditions could help to push your scene or theme to the next level, and weave them into the story in a way which supports and reinforces the story in some way. Whether it’s swirling fog to represent a character’s confusion, or a distant blazing forest fire that progressively fills the character’s world with smoke and indicates looming trouble, it can only make your story stronger.

Groups

Dealing with groups of people might seem a more visual element than a prose one, but it can still be useful for writers to consider. It’s very easy to picture characters doing things alone or with only the other main characters, but having groups of other people around can help to remind the reader that characters do have a place in society. As with the image of the showgirl crying while the other actresses rush past her from Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949), how groups of people react to a character can very much represent a character’s inner life as well as their greater place in society.

Key Gestures

Kurosawa liked to have each actor take on a unique gesture or way of moving so that the audience would instantly recognize him or her. This isn’t a bad tip for writers in general, either. Just as you can use visual cues like clothing, accessories or appearance to bring your characters to life in the reader’s imaginations, you can use gestures and movement as well. If you give each of the central characters a motion they consciously or unconsciously perform on a regular basis, it acts as another layer of characterization and something to play with. Of course, the gesture shouldn’t be overdone or comical (unless that’s your goal), but if subtly worked in it could reflect a lot about the character and their inner life.

Movement

There are many ways to look at movement and how it could benefit writing prose. The most direct one would be to try to have your characters doing actions or activities in their scenes, which both make the scene a little more lively (avoiding a “staged” feeling) and allows for a lot of subtext where you connect the actions with the inner life of the characters or themes playing out. I can’t recall who it was, but there was a famous author who said that they always started scenes with characters in motion in some way and finished in similar form.

Of course, movement can also be played out with the “camera” of the descriptive prose itself. Looking at description as a camera and thinking through the effects that different “shots” would have like a cinematographer could definitely benefit your writing in subtle ways. For example, did you know that each of the standard camera shots (close up, medium shot, long shot, worm’s eye view, etc) actually have a psychological or emotional effect on how the viewer interprets the character and scene? There is a whole language to film that’s developed over a hundred years and that we learn as children on a subconscious level. Learning the different shots and why directors use them could benefit your writing by letting you tap into that treasure trove of audience psychology.

Regardless of what you decide to use (or not use) from Kurosawa’s approach, thinking through your approach to scenes in a visual or cinematic way can only enhance your final work. However, do remember that the power of prose over video is that it can go deep inside characters and to places that video can’t, and you should be taking advantage of not just the visual and audio, but also the other senses in your scenes as well.

Rob

P.S. Check out Tony Zhou’s other videos, they’re really something else and will give you a new appreciation of the power of film.