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Posts published in “About Filmmaking”

The Descent

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Last night after Juli had gone to bed, I watched The Descent, a film which I had passed off as total “meh” when it first came out in 2006. Oh great, another stupid Hollywood piece of shit horror movie, I thought. I passed it off as nothing. Then, earlier this year when I was in Minnesota with Mikey W we got to discussing films (as we do) and The Descent came up. He recommended it to me wholeheartedly, noting that my preconceptions about it were wrong. Always willing to give a film with a solid recommendation a chance, I threw it onto my Netflix Queue.

I’m glad I did too, because it’s a fine example of what can be accomplish on a smallish budget when you’ve got a super tight script, concept, actors, and production team. Working with not that much, director Neil Marshall turned out the best new horror film I’ve seen in a few years that doesn’t rely on a gimmick (Cloverfield, I’m looking at you).

The film is about Sarah, who lost her husband and child in a grisly auto accident a year prior, and a group her friends, led by the headstrong Juno, embarking on an adventure into a cave system in the Appalachian Mountains. They climb down into a giant hole in the ground (that’s the technical term) to do some spelunking and Sarah starts to see shadows moving. When they becoming trapped by a cave in, Juno reveals that this isn’t the cavern they were supposed to be in and then it all goes down hill. I won’t spoil it any further. You should see it.

The Descent is truly masterful at building a palpable sense of dread. As much as everyone subconsciously wants to go back to the womb, no one wants to be trapped in a cave with two miles of rock above them and with no way of getting help. Really, this film, for me, breaks into two kinds of scares. The first is the base human dread of being trapped alive with no hope of escape, which seems like a most horrible way to die. Claustrophobia is this film’s friend and confidant. Taking clear cues from Ridley Scott’s Alien, The Descent utilizes its setting to enhance the dread we feel as we imagine ourselves in the place of the women struggling desperately to escape into the light. The second, which is less interesting, is the jump-out-at-you scare. I am not a fan of these types of scare, not because I am susceptible to them, but because I find them often to be cheap. Being startled because something jumped out and the music suddenly got very loud is not being scared. Sure, it causes me to jump, but it’s nothing compared to the dread you feel when something is really scary. Now, I’m not begrudging this film the use of the jumpscare (a term I read somewhere that I like) because it’s one of the horror genre’s most common tools. I just think it’s cheap, but that is a genre-wide complaint, and not specific to The Descent.

I thought that the most frightening point of the whole film was when Sarah is crawling through an extremely narrow passageway and begins to have a panic attack. She feels stuck and her friend Beth comes back for her, trying to calm her down. Then the passage starts to collapse and they have to rush through this narrow little hole as quickly as they can lest they be crushed under tons of falling rock. I was sitting on the sofa watching this with my body turned halfway away from the screen, my head cocked back, I found it so horrifying. No number of jumpscares could equal the slow dread of that moment for me. It reminded me for the first time in a long time of how as a kid I used to hide by the door during particularly scary parts when watching horror films so that if I needed to I could get away and not have to sit through whatever was about to happen. It was that same feeling, except I wasn’t hiding by the door.

Regarding the effects in the film, I thought they were mostly spot on. The creatures were amazing. They were like Gollum, if Gollum was, you know, a real monster. The excessive blood and gore was a little silly at points, but never dissatisfying. The set design and cinematography was great with real moments of actual darkness. Not bullshit movie darkness, but real, old fashioned, ain’t-no-light-in-this-bitch darkness. There were a few comps that weren’t that great, where they felt like they were overreaching their capabilities, but overall it was a seamless effort.

My one almost-criticism, is that is nearly falls into the “Inappropriately Hot Chick” convention, which I will not describe here. Fortunately, it’s kind of ok here. Perhaps this is just a particularly attractive group of spelunkers. I don’t know. I don’t do a lot of crawling about in caves, but something tells me that we’re looking at a conveniently too-pretty group of cave divers. Expect further analysis of this convention in a future Black Laser post.

Niggles aside, if you’re a fan of horror flicks, check out The Descent. It won’t make you mad. In fact, I enjoyed it a lot, and I am glad I watched it alone because Juli would have hated it. When the chick gets the pickaxe through the throat? Awesome.

My least favorite TV/Movie convention – The Overheard Conversation

It is no secret that literature and cinema often use common themes and devices to propel a story. Some of these are very useful for opening doors for your characters or building drama. Indeed, Joseph Campbell’s entire career was based on the idea that the literature of the world, myth, repeats certain key elements and structures across cultures, geography, and time. They represent the human mind seeking answers to unanswerable questions through the use of imagery and symbol. If you’ve never read any of Campbell’s work, I highly recommend you do. It’s fascinating stuff.

But those are not what I want to write about here. Instead, I want to discuss a common dramatic device so lazy, so dastardly, so woefully incompetent that I cringe and immediately lose my ability to enjoy said film or show. I’ve never heard it referred to by anyone else so I have come to call it “The Overheard Conversation”. You’ve seen it before.

How about a quick example? Here’s the premise: GEEKY GUY has spent the entire film trying to woo the most popular, most beautiful BABE in school. He had been successful for a while, but then they got into a fight over whatever the hell reason and he stormed off at the big homecoming party. Later, feeling stupid, GEEKY GUY tries to find BABE who has been approached by her ex-boyfriend HOTSHOT GUY. But because he’s so shy, GEEKY GUY doesn’t approach them and instead hears a snippet of their conversation that he takes completely out of context. Like this.

EXT PARTY NIGHT – HOTSHOT GUY and BABE are on the edge of the party by the pool. He is drunk and making physical advances. She is rejecting him, but he is much stronger.

BABE
Get off me HOTSHOT GUY. I’m with GEEKY GUY now.

HOTSHOT GUY
What do you see in that dork?

BABE
More than I see in you, jerk.

GEEKY GUY approaches HOTSHOT GUY and BABE where they are arguing by the pool, but he cannot hear them. He comes up toward them quietly and in the shadows and they do not see him.

HOTSHOT GUY
Don’t you still care about me?

BABE
Of course I care about you, but…

HOTSHOT GUY kisses BABE forcefully and she is not strong enough to resist. Enter slow motion. Close shot of GEEKY GUY with tears welling in his eyes, and then rage blossoms. He runs off.

BABE pushes HOTSHOT GUY off and slaps him in the face.

BABE
I told you already we’re done! I never want to see you again!

Stop me if you’ve seen this film before. Oh, you can’t stop me? Well, then I’ll continue.

From here, GEEKY GUY goes on a self-destructive/depressed/whatever bend. Eventually they reconcile when he confronts her about the night by the pool and she tells him the truth of what happened and he suddenly feels foolish and she forgives him for not just being forthright with her in the beginning and they live happily ever after through high school graduation. How romantic!

How many films can you name where some permutation of this has happened? Five? One hundred? A billion? It’s basically the plot device used in every stupid rom-com piece of trash spit out by Hollywood 50 times a year. Whenever I see this used, I imagine this conversation.

“Gosh! I can’t think of how to drag this Jennifer Anniston vehicle out to the bare minimum 90 minutes. Whatever shall I do?!” one writer says.

“Why not just have her walk into the room when her boyfriend is on the phone with his sister saying something she’ll take completely out of context because this is the only way to inject some ‘drama’ into this horrid piece of trash?” the other says.

“Brilliant!” the first one says. “I’ll get another Oscar for this one!”

It really must be the laziest cop out to burden the state of modern drama. It’s the Deus Ex Machina of modern cinema. How do we drag this out? Add some fake tension? Perfect.

What’s worse is that I cannot think of even a single time that this has happened to me or anyone I know in real life. Now, I’m not saying that all drama in films has to be absolutely realistic. Of course it doesn’t. I have zero issues with the Eye of Sauron being able to see Hobbits when Frodo puts on the ring. That’s awesome. Great. But if you’re going to be basing your drama on real life, then at least make it believable. Are you really expecting me to believe that GEEKY GUY, after spending the whole film fantasizing and eventually attaining BABE, would not just step in and be all, “What the fuck?” He would run off without, at the very least, waiting in the shadows to see how their conversation turned out? Pathetic. He doesn’t even need to be forceful, just, you know, let it play out a little. How about giving your girlfriend the benefit of the doubt? Has she betrayed you before? Do you have ANY reason to think that she’d not be faithful to you? How about asking her about it? Nah, instead you should just assume a bunch of untrue crap and then spend the next 35 minutes of screen time moping around being an all around asshole. Good plan.

Here’s how the scene should have gone.

EXT PARTY NIGHT – HOTSHOT GUY and BABE are on the edge of the party by the pool. He is drunk and making physical advances. She is rejecting him, but he is much stronger.

BABE
Get off me HOTSHOT GUY. I’m with GEEKY GUY now.

HOTSHOT GUY
What do you see in that dork?

BABE
More than I see in you, jerk.

GEEKY GUY approaches HOTSHOT GUY and BABE where they are arguing by the pool, but he cannot hear them. He comes up toward them quietly and in the shadows and they do not see him.

HOTSHOT GUY
Don’t you still care about me?

BABE
Of course I care about you, but…

HOTSHOT GUY kisses BABE forcefully and she is not strong enough to resist. Enter slow motion. Close shot of GEEKY GUY with tears welling in his eyes, and then rage blossoms. He steps out into the light startling the other two.

GEEKY GUY
What the fucking fuck?!

BABE
Geeky Guy! This isn’t…

HOTSHOT GUY (interrupting)
Get the hell out of here, Geeky Guy. She’s my girl.

BABE
It’s not what you think! I didn’t mean to kiss…

GEEKY GUY hold up his hand to stop her.

GEEKY GUY
It’s all right, Babe. I trust you.

BABE runs over and gives GEEKY GUY a big hug. HOTSHOT GUY fumes.

GEEKY GUY
Now, I must deal with you.

HOTSHOT GUY
What are you going to do, World of Warcraft me to death?

HOTSHOT GUY laughs. GEEKY GUY pulls out his lightsabre, but HOTSHOT GUY begins to mutate into a giant beast, like a cross between a lizard and a slug and a spider, all fangs and teeth and eyes, more than 10 feet tall.

See? Wasn’t that better? Doesn’t that sound like a better movie? It makes you wonder how many completely awful films could have been saved from their fate as utterly forgettable pieces of fluff if the writers had just spent another 40 seconds and avoided The Overheard Conversation. Truly sad.

Amortizing Creative Expenditures

I’ve long contended that for each dollar I spend on a particular piece of photographic equipment I must take at least one photograph with it. So, if I spend 1800 dollars on a Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS zoom lens, then I’d better well take 1800 photos with it. (note: I have. More than that, in fact.) It’s simple math, easily managed, and, most of all, it makes sense. I’ve written about it on here somewhere else before, I think, but I can’t find the post so you’ll have to just trust me. It has worked quite well for me as a guideline while informing new purchases and once I’ve purchased an item. Am I going to use x piece of equipment to take y number of photos or is it something I can live without? Now that I’ve purchased item z, I’d better throw it in my bag because there’s no way I’ve taken n photos with it yet. It has protected me from frivolous purchases in the past and made me think about using the tools I already have. It’s a good system. I recommend it to any photographers out there.

But photography is not my only artistic endeavor. I am also a writer (as you well know), a professional in the moving image field, and I dabble in songcraft. It occurred to me while I was walking to the Apple Store to purchase a laptop backpack—the current messenger style bag I use hurts my fucking back—that I don’t have a useful metric for justifying those purchases. No, “justify” is the wrong word. It makes it sound like I’m making an excuse for the purchase; I’m not. I don’t have a useful metric to ensure that I get my money’s worth out of an item. What sort of production quotas make sense to meet to make the expenditure, and thereby the time I’ve spent working to make that money, a fair trade? With the photography, it’s easy. I’m constantly producing. Look at my hard drives. They’ll tell you all about it. But that’s not necessarily true of video editing or music creation software. They are tools I use to create things but are not inherently productive in and of themselves. Music production software (Logic) can be used to make something from scratch. Editorial or VFX software is even more difficult because they are often just PARTS of the chain of production. Making beautiful photographs and making beautiful films are both difficult things, but photography is a much more solitary craft than filmmaking. A craftsman can make beautiful photographs all by himself, but good luck making a beautiful film all by yourself. It’s all but totally impossible.

But difficulty has nothing to do with it. The difficulty is just a challenge to the creator, a hurdle, a bump in the road.

Therefore, I propose this system to make my purchases of music and video tools feel reasonable. Consider it a challenge to myself to make the time I spend working, earning money to spend on tools, fruitful. To make the late nights and weekends at the office work toward making me a self-sufficient creator of things so that I can get myself to a point where all this dicking around IS THE JOB. Imagine that.

Guidelines for expenditures on video tools
For each hundred dollars spent on video tools, I must create at least one minute of finished footage. Dailies do not count. That’s absurd. Finished means that I’ve put time and thought into it. A finished piece is something I would not be embarrassed to show someone. I do not have to provide qualifications for rough bits in finished footage. 1 minute of footage per 100 dollars spent.

Guidelines for expenditures on audio tools
For each hundred dollars spent on audio tools, I must create at least one song or three minutes of mixed audio. Audio demands a higher creative price since I can sit and create without outside help. Audio also has two possible avenues for amortization since using audio software to mix for video is a perfectly valid use. A song is defined similarly to a piece of finished footage, that is, I’ve put thought and effort into it. I would not hesitate to post it here on The Black Laser. I do not need to qualify it in any way.

I think these are pretty useful guidelines, and will definitely help me focus my energies into short term, highly feasible goals. I’ve already mentioned plans to put together music videos, and many people know about the mystery that is Fantasies About Time Travel. I’ve also been thinking about dropping some choice Ghettotech beats under a pseudonym, like DJ Muad’Dib, MC Kwisatz Haderach, or Duncan Idaho. Bonus points for pinpointing how badly I just dorked out there.