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F.A.B, Movie Industry

August 17, 2012

As you probably haven’t noticed, this blog has gone without an update for a while. Rest assured, terrified onlookers, that I have not been struck by a meteor, eliminated by a professional squad of government-paid hitmen or otherwise destroyed by a sufficiently impressive threat. A combination of university assignments and old-fashioned writer’s block have seen fit to choke my fingers over the last week. And while one of these problems has been dispelled through hard work, extensive research on the assigned topics and a drastic lowering of my own academic standards, one has not.

Writer’s block is a curious beast. Like bacteria, Von Neumann machines and Call Me Maybe parody videos, it’s self-perpetuating. You start out sitting at the keyboard and realizing that you just don’t have much to write about, right at this minute. Within two days, you’re frantically reading through Warhammer 40000/My Little Pony crossover fan fiction, desperate to find any sort of inspiration (but you only find gross overestimates of the kiloton-yield of Friendship). Within a week, you’re absolutely certain that you are a talentless hack, unable to contribute anything worthwhile to pop culture, and ready to give up any dream of a creative career and become an accountant.

That last little epiphany by my cruel subconscious may have been a pretty reasonable summation of my abilities, and it’s hard to deny that “write about dicks and video games” isn’t much of a ‘career’. But no matter what cruel things the voices whisper in my ear, I am sitting down in front of the computer again, for something other than academic research or Youtube videos of cats falling over. That means I can now furnish you with the most original thought to ever come out of an amateur critic:

Hollywood Is Doing Something Wrong.

I’ll give you a second to retrieve your jaw from the ground.

As a small boy, I was ferociously wimpy, often mistaken for a girl, and preferred to sit squatting on my hindquarters like a caveman taking a shit. But other than that, I also enjoyed a TV show called Thunderbirds. On a whim, I recently decided to download a few of the episodes, with the moral justification that it’s not really piracy if you already have the show on VHS, locked up in some time-forsaken storeroom. I was expecting a brief rush of nostalgia, followed by a quick realization of how incredibly shitty the show actually was. You know, like that playground or pool that was absolutely HUGE when you were a kid, but you go back now and it’s smaller and less impressive than Michael Cera’s acting range (I could have gone for a dick joke there; see, I’m maturing).

Well, as this XKCD points out, sometimes the playground IS fucking huge[1].

And Thunderbirds is FUCKING AWESOME.

If you don’t want to fly this thing, you are clinically female.

If you haven’t heard of it, or only know it through the shitty live-action movie they made a few years ago, let me catch you up.

Thunderbirds is a cult British science fiction series, old enough to have the posters proudly advertise the fact that it’s in colour. It’s about the Tracy family, a group of billionaire astronauts who decide to use their wealth to build advanced and specialized vehicles, which they then use to rescue people in need. It is full of explosions, resolute heroes and female damsels-in-distress. It is the most American thing Britain has ever released.

It was made entirely with puppets.

The Tracy family is a clan of dead-eyed abominations with heads the size of their torsos. They walk like polio victims on the moon. Their strings are always visible. Yes, this is where Team America took its visual cues from. And again, I must restate: it is fucking awesome.

Yes, that is absolutely what the face of a non-demonic human looks like.

The average plot of a Thunderbirds episode follows a few simple steps:

  1. In the future, someone undertakes an enormous engineering project (e.g, putting the Empire State Building on rails, building a fleet of nuclear-powered supersonic passenger jets, cutting down a forest with a mech, eating a mountain with a different mech).
  2. This enormous, expensive engineering project then explodes. If an explosion is unavailable, either make it so that it will explode soon, or have something nearby explode (e.g. a bridge, a mech, a plane, the ground, an incompetent woman driver).
  3. A few people are trapped by the resulting chain-reaction of explosions.
  4. International Rescue (the Tracy family’s secret, vigilante rescue operation) flies to the rescue in 5 enormous, brightly coloured vehicles called the Thunderbirds (e.g. a rocket, a bigger rocket, some sort of rocket/plane hybrid and a tiny little submarine because every family has one brother than everyone hates).
  5. These vehicles then deploy a variety of smaller vehicles to effect a rescue, all of which have the basic function of ‘destroy absolutely anything that the explosions haven’t’. (e.g, a giant drill, a giant bulldozer with a tank cannon, grappling hooks the size of buses, hover-scooters with inbuilt machine guns).
  6. Everyone is saved. Back at Tracy Island (their Batcave equivalent), one of the puppets makes an awful pun and everyone laughs in a disjointed, inhuman way while their strings are clearly visible.
  7. Roll credits.

Oh, there are a few other continuing plot threads. There’s the recurring villain, The Hood. He’s some sort of Asian warlord who wants to become rich by photographing International Rescue and selling the pictures to tabloids (?) and he figures the best way to do this is to try and kill as many people as possible, and then try and kill the Thunderbirds once they arrive, because Villainy. He also has psychic powers (?), which he uses to mind-control the Tracys’ racist caricature butler (??) who is also his half-brother (?!).

Other important things to know:

  • International Rescue has its own espionage division, consisting of an English heiress, her cockney butler and her hot-pink Rolls Royce that’s more heavily armed than a tank.
  • Everyone says “F.A.B” instead of ‘yes’ or ‘roger that’, for no discernable reason. No, they never say what it stands for.
  • In the credits sequence, a lovingly detailed oil refinery explodes for at least 20 seconds. This has absolutely nothing to do with anything in the show.
  • There was an episode where they had to fight giant alligators.
  • There was a double-length episode where they had to fight martians.
  • Their enormous, primary-coloured rocket ships fly out from underneath the retractable buildings of their island mansion.
  • Despite literally everything I’ve just said, the writing and characterization is actually pretty darn good, once you get past the inhuman puppet heads and how adorably 60s-Britain everything is.

 

So yeah. This is the best thing I’ve watched in months.

But looking back a page or so, I just remembered that I had a point. Something about Hollywood doing something wrong.

My point is basically that Hollywood doesn’t give audiences enough credit. And no, when I say Hollywood, I don’t mean Michael “my audiences are lobotomized gerbils” Bay or Uwe “why do I have a job” Boll. I mean Hollywood and big-budget movies in general, from Titanic to Total Recall.

I think that Hollywood typically underestimates the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

You most likely know what I’m talking about; SoD typically refers to the audience’s ability to immerse themselves in a show and ignore certain jarring or unrealistic things (“doesn’t he need to reload?”) so they can enjoy themselves. But Hollywood doesn’t trust your ability to suspend disbelief. Over the last, well, forever, filmmakers have spent obscene amounts of money to make sure that the enormous alien spaceship over New York looks as believable as possible. Apocalyptic amounts of capital have been devoted towards making unreal things as real-looking as a dozen sweaty supercomputers can manage.

And while I have no objection to beautiful special effects occasionally ejaculating into my eyeballs, I do think that in general, it’s the wrong move for the industry to take.

 

You see, there are certain things that disrupt suspension of disbelief quite badly. Horrible movie cliches, such as the hero looking to the sky and screaming NNNOOOOOOOOO like I do when I hop on the bathroom scales: that breaks SoD. Really obvious plot holes, characters that are horribly written or acted, our girlfriends noisly lubricating every time Ryan Gosling takes his shirt off: all of these things break SoD really easily. They remind the audience that, hey, we’re watching this on our TV. It isn’t real.

But I do NOT think that cheap special effects necessarily break SoD, and I think that an over-emphasis on CGI budgets is unhealthy for film and television in general.

I just won’t believe this scene is real until that dust is rendered more convincingly.

You see, when you start watching something, there’s an adjustment period of a few minutes (or seconds, if you’re a regular fan) where your brain ‘normalizes’ what you’re watching. This is why an obviously unreal image, such as the cartoon forms of Aang and Sokka, appear ‘real’ to our subconscious, emotional, plot-appreciating mind after a few minutes. On a less dramatic scale, it’s why you can easily see the 2D world of movie characters as ‘real’, when you should rationally know that it can’t be because there’s no depth. This internal adjustment is suspension of disbelief at its finest. You are invested in the world of Light and L, even though they are blatantly just moving pencil sketches on a screen.

 

And that power of SoD essentially means that we could enjoy shadow puppet theatre, so long as the Rabbit and the Angry Rabbit were sufficiently well-characterized and interesting.

 

Whew, it only took me 1500 words, but here it is:

I do not enjoy Thunderbirds any less because it is obviously made with puppets.

Very few people would enjoy Thunderbirds any less because it is obviously made with puppets.

You do not need to make a show about explosions and astronauts and psychic villains LOOK REALISTIC for it to be good.

 

Once you have this revelation, you start seeing examples of it everywhere. Shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Death Note and The Simpsons are really, really good… even if they look nothing like real life. Babylon 5 had CGI spacecraft that were probably modelled on a fucking potato, but thanks to the miracle of good writing, you forgot about it in a matter of seconds. Farscape, Buffy, Doctor Who… every one of these shows has fans that would literally kill to touch the actors’ hair. And every one of those shows had an effects budget of papier mache and Play-Doh.

Haha, no, seriously. These are the actual bad guys.

Meanwhile, we have Hollywood excrement with the budget of small nations, and movies like Avatar, where so much was spent on giving the unreal alien hybrid-creature realistically pored skin that they forgot about ‘originality’ or ‘heroes that are more likeable and moral than the villains’.

 

There’s another advantage to awful special effects: scale. When you’re paying Steam Sale dollars for effects, the writers can do whatever the heck they want, and you’ll be able to deliver it to the screen.

This is why Thunderbirds is able to blow up a building twenty times an episode, and why The Last Airbender can have enormous wizard-duels for whatever reason, whenever the writers feel like it. Conversely, this is also why Game of Thrones can only have something happen three times a season, and why Supernatural‘s representation of Armageddon – the biggest, bloodiest battle the universe has ever seen – was two guys in a field staring at each other. If you want to make something BIG, make it look shitty.

 

Now, I suppose I should add a few caveats. This is not a license to just have the occasional really bad effect. If they showed the wires in just one scene of The Matrix, or filmed the climax of a Thunderbirds episode with finger-puppets, that would break SoD, because it’s inconsistent with the rest of the show. There is still a place for big-budget, beautiful-looking blockbusters. There is a difference between ‘cheap effects’ and ‘bad effects’. And there is a bottom line (what I refer to as the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 boundary).

 

But when it comes down to it, Avengers was great not because every dust particle thrown up by the Hulk’s smashing was lovingly rendered. It was great because the writers, directors and actors were good at their fucking jobs. And no matter whether it’s animation, live action, puppets or a bloody community theatre production, I will ALWAYS watch five guys in colour-coded rocket ships fight an ancient cult of demi-humans who live in pyramids and fly fighter jets.

You are fucking welcome[2].

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