Jason Porath

has a website, i guess

The rise of the hashgag

If you’ve seen Big Hero Six, chances are that one of the things that stuck with you was Baymax’s “balalala” fist bump. You can see the exact moment in the YouTube clip above. Most people saw that and just laughed at the silliness of it.

Me, I set my watch.

Upon first seeing it, I guessed (correctly) that exact gag would be repeated 2-3 more times in the movie, depending on how well the test audiences had enjoyed it. They would be spaced out for maximum effect, at 20 minute intervals.  And that it would be seized upon by the marketing department, either in the trailers themselves, the TV ads, or a twitter campaign (it was, as you can tell by the above video). I even guessed that it was inserted fairly late in production (which, best I can tell from what my Disney friends have said, is also true). I would not be surprised if it was one of many such moments that were tested out.

(yes, I’m a total killjoy. I have a degree in film criticism and I worked in animation for many years. I can’t watch movies like a normal person anymore.)

I don’t have a good word to describe this phenomenon, so I’m going to term it “hashgags.” This is a joke in an animated movie, usually input at the behest of marketing forces, that is used to sell the movie. It’s usually inserted late into production and test screened to within an inch of its life.  Some are used repeatedly, some are one-offs that do well with trailers. And it is crippling the entire industry.

Here’s some other examples. First, we have Madagascar 3’s earworm/minstrel show/violation of the Geneva Convention, Afro Circus:

Next, Rise of the Guardians’ Goofy Christmas Elves, who barely feature into the movie:

There’s the progenitor of the current generation, Scrat from Ice Age  – who consistently exists in almost a totally different movie from the rest of the characters:

Tossing it in here, because I find it hysterically baffling, Free Birds’ creepy laughing hazmat guys (this one didn’t work, but I can see what they were trying to do):

…but everyone is just chasing the guys who perfected the hashgag — Despicable Me’s Minions:

If you’ve been near a child within the past five years, you’ve probably heard them running around singing “banana” or echoing the “bee-doo, bee-doo” firetruck sounds they make in Despicable Me 2.

So, pop quiz: who made Despicable Me? Not Universal, they were the distribution and financiers. Not Illumination either, they’re basically a shell production company owned by Universal. It’s certainly not Pixar, DreamWorks, Disney, Blue Sky, Sony, or Laika. Give up?

It was MacGuff.

Who?

Exactly.

MacGuff is a French film company whose animation division was acquired by Illumination in 2011. They conspicuously don’t appear in any of the advertising for the film. They’re hardly a household name. Even most people working in the industry don’t know about them. They also, as far as I’m aware (it may have changed since being bought by Illumination), unlike almost every other animation studio in existence, receive none of the profits from the success of the Despicable Me movies. They are (were?) guns for hire.

The Minions themselves are basically the epitome of hashgag. They are cute nonsensical character designs that make zero sense, bolted onto the rest of the movie in ridiculous vignettes. These vignettes can be mass-produced across the globe without concern for continuity  or artistry. To me, they reek of the cynical influence of marketing. They are far more popular than any other character in the movie (can you name any of Gru’s daughters? the villain? his wife?), to the point where they are the primary focus of the advertising and merchandising.  They’re not even voiced by people who can get voice actor royalties: they’re voiced by the directors.

This is a different phenomenon than the comic relief sidekick we saw in the 90s. Characters like Abu or Flounder were not the focus of the movie’s charm and advertising. Characters like Scrat and the Minions are.

I hate the Minions. I hate them violently, passionately, personally. Their rise to prominence makes sense — their humor is very basic, slipping-on-a-banana-peel nonsense, and it translates well to both young children and people in other countries — but it is tremendously regressive filmmaking, on the order of “Steamboat Willie.” When I approached the animation industry, it was riding high on surprisingly mature moments like the “When She Loved Me” sequence from Toy Story 2:

…but moments like this are harder and harder to get into movies nowadays. Take Po’s recovery of his childhood memories in Kung Fu Panda 2 (spoilers ahead!):

This is a poignant moment, culminated with the somber reclamation of his identity: “I am Po.” It is also immediately thereafter robbed of its entire narrative impact when he continues on to say, in the same breath, “and I’m gonna need a hat.” (this moment is mercifully edited out by the YouTube uploader)

This is timid filmmaking that, in my mind, intermingles with the rise of the hashgag. The character of Po, at the end of Panda 1, was poised for real character growth, beyond his “fat doofus” persona. But as most of the recurring gags in the movie (and the trailers) show, he’s not allowed to outgrow this, despite everything in the narrative pushing him to do so. Somber character moments are kneecapped by cheap laughs, and the movie is polished up to be sold on these merits.

And if what I just said isn’t convincing enough of the marketing department’s timidity consider that none of the trailers are bold enough to mention that the movie features Gary Oldman playing AN ALBINO FUCKING PEACOCK THAT KNOWS KUNG FU.

Ahem.

To be clear: I’m not saying kids’ movies should become a weepfest like the first 15 minutes of Up (no matter how amazing they were). I’m not advocating for gratuitous pathos-mashing like (mild spoiler!) Toy Story 3’s completely unnecessary incinerator scene.  I don’t think Baymax’s fist bump ruined Big Hero Six by any stretch of the imagination (I actually liked it). What I’m saying is that the hashgag has turned into a “pull in case of emergency” lever. When, six months out from release, the people behind the movie aren’t confident in how it’s turned out, they pull  it, because it’s safe and simple. Problem is, it cheapens the movie. It leads to a homogenization of the genre, where one movie chases the success of another by resorting to panicky, lowest-common-denominator filmmaking.

Lest you think I protest too much, take the example of the most successful animated film in a generation, Frozen. When it was first introduced to the public, what did it lead with? Not “Let It Go,” not “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman,” not even “In Summer.” It led with this:

This is just a trailer of no-dialogue-required gags. It’s not even in the movie. It doesn’t feature any of the main characters. To my eye, it communicates two things clearly: Disney following after the Despicable Me hashgag model, and a total lack of confidence in its own movie. The theory of a lack of confidence is validated by the worldwide shortage of toys following the movie’s release. It seems clear that Disney didn’t think Frozen was going to be a hit. Thankfully they had enough money to be able to construct entire hashgag moments for the marketing department (like the minute and a half teaser above) without inserting them into the core movie itself, but many other companies don’t have that kind of money to blow. They end up inserting it into the core of their movies.

This certainly doesn’t affect every animated movie out there. I can point to any number of movies — most of the Pixar lot, Wreck It Ralph, BoxTrolls, Book of Life — and find those that don’t fall prey to this trend. But the hashgag is a steady trend in moviemaking, and it’s only growing more prominent. As the push for a more vignette-based, story-free mode of moviemaking takes hold, I worry that the hard-fought gains of films like Toy Story 2, Prince of Egypt, and the Ghibli oeuvre will give way, and we’ll backslide into a world where even the big budget movies, the ones supposed to be pushing forward the art, are basically Tom and Jerry Despicable Me.

Animated movies should be able to stand on their own merits and be their own entities. But if Frozen, of all movies, cannot be sold on its own merits, what chance does any other movie have?

My Japanese Name

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Cat Theater

Struggled a lot with this comic challenge — it was “cat” and “theater,” again all in 90 minutes. My execution was kind of weak and my decision to attempt color ill-advised, but here it is, warts and all. (click to embiggen)

cattheatre

Dinosaur Roller Skate

This is another Strip Search challenge, to complete a comic in 90 minutes, given a two-part topic. This week’s was “Dinosaur” and “Roller Skate.” Here’s the comic. Hit “read more” to get my opinion on it.

dinoskate

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Naughty Mystery

So I’ve been watching this show “Strip Search,” which is a reality show about people who want to become comic artists. One of the challenges is to complete a comic in 90 minutes given two random words as a topic. One episode, they got “naughty mystery” – so I paused it then and there, and did the best comic I could in 90 minutes.

Here it is, warts and all (didn’t get the last font more legible, nor get the black balance correct on the last two panels). Click “read more” to see the (ever-so-slightly) touched up version!

naughtymystery

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On Future Adventures

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The DreamWorks Inter-species Breeding Program

(beware: this contains minor spoilers for pretty much every DreamWorks movie, and a couple Pixar ones)

interspecies_01
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How Was India?

india_01

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Continuity

The last couple months have been extremely difficult, throwing new challenge after new challenge at me. The underlying difficulty of these problems has been that they’ve been inscrutable. How do you make sense of dementia? Of cancer? Of loved ones suddenly cutting off ties, without explanation? How do you make sense out of the chaos of daily life?

This has been on my mind a lot lately. And this is what I’ve got:

Making order of chaos — out of the non-understood — is the fundamental challenge of being human. Think to the evolution of human civilizations, and how we’ve established explanations for what our experiences. Sometimes it’s as ridiculous as “the sun is pulled across the sky by 4 horses and a guy in a chariot” or “winter happens because mother nature misses her daughter when she goes away for several months out of the year.” But they break down the unfamiliar into something relatable, something comfortable. Otherwise we are perpetually in fight-or-flight mode, constantly on edge.

To this end, we’ve established rule systems to pass down across generations. The most obvious ones are religion and science, but if you think of the task of rule systems as “give a series of explanations that make life as easy and survivable as possible,” you’ll find even more systems: nationality, ethnicity, even just local communities. Don’t leave the village, don’t eat pork, don’t talk to strangers. The “why” of each rule is different from system to system, but ultimately, they answer questions. The fewer questions in one’s life, the less stress, the easier life. These systems rewire your brain for comfort: you don’t just believe that the sun will rise tomorrow, you know it. Things continue, as they did before you and will after you. The rules persist. In a word, what we’ve created, to tame the chaos of an disorderly world, is a sense of continuity.

What’s interesting to me is the idea of broken continuity. After all, many, many rule systems have risen and fallen across human history. People are adaptable enough to rewire their brains from one rule system to another across their lifetimes. One can go from knowing there is no God to knowing that God exists and loves them in a matter of days. How do we deal with exceptions to the rules — how do our brains adapt to inconsistent rules, to broken continuity?

In thinking about this, I’ve found it’s helpful to think of rule systems as organisms in a process of natural selection. I’ll use Judaism as an example. Judaism was born out of a polytheistic religion, with its central god, Yahweh, declaring war on others like Ba’al Hadad and Dagon by making “I am the only God, there are no others before me” the central tenet of Judaism. By not allowing its followers to even accept the possibility of other gods — in fact, encouraging them to destroy other religions’ priests — Judaism locked its followers into its belief system. It then evolved various laws that kept its followers alive, like “don’t eat pork,” as food preparation was not advanced enough to make it safe.

And what of the cast-off gods? They were remixed, recontextualized, re-explained. Ba’al Hadad and all other gods in that pantheon were recast in Abrahamanic religions as Ba’al Zebub, or Beelzebub, lord of the flies — a demon in later Christian mythology. Dagon’s temples were subject to Jewish vandalism, with followers breaking statues’ legs into fish tail formations, as “dag” is Hebrew for “fish.” Gradually, the image of Dagon became so corrupted that he ended up being envisioned more as a Lovecraftian fish-demon than his original godlike state.

Then Christianity came along and took a different tack than old Judaism’s kill-em-all tendencies: recast them into the fold. Hadad, for example, was variously linked with the storm-god Teshub, the Egyptian god Set, and the Zeus. The nature goddess Eostre (and her associated rabbit-rich fertility holiday), was gradually folded into the larger tradition of Jesus’ resurrection, and Easter was born. Christianity’s very existence is arguably due to such inclusions — how else was it differentiated from Judaism than by its adoption of the idea of a resurrecting god? An idea that was echoed in many other religions. The ranks of saints swelled up with each new religion that Christianity would embrace, with old religions transformed into new states, and continuity was maintained.

(you can extend this idea easily to the concept of comic books as modern-day gods, and the relationship of comic book fans to continuity, but that’s a blog post for another time)

So, what does this all have to do with coping with a couple difficult months?

It’s been about establishing a path to walk. As commonplace as it is for people to live with passed-down rule systems, I find myself without such an inheritance. Although I was raised Jewish, by Jewish law I was Christian (and by Christian law, Jewish). What with the preponderance of alternative religions in my childhood, accepting any of them as a real truth didn’t make much sense. Throughout my childhood, neither parent was on great terms with their families, and so I did not grow up with great sense of genetic heritage. Ethnically, I’m an indeterminate blank slate. Nationally, I don’t identify much as Kentuckian, and only reluctantly as American.

In short, I’m in many senses a series of broken continuities. Many are born with comfortable paths to walk down, roads more traveled. I feel that in many ways I was born out in the weeds, weaving wildly across all paths traveled in my journeys. It’s not that I’m entirely without direction, or that my life is unduly difficult, it’s that I can’t quite subscribe fully to any rule system, or commit myself to an established way of living. That’s not uncommon for anyone, especially in this day and age – I just feel it particularly acutely of late.

I’m weird. And I want to know what that means.

In this case, it means I can’t fall back on a pre-compiled set of wisdom. It means I get to pick and choose, compiling my own collection of answers and parables for my daily life. That’s exciting, although difficult when times themselves, as they have been recently, are difficult.

Then I Woke Up: The Old Man and the Magician

(this is a series of posts documenting my dreams)

There was an old man who lived on a largely deserted forested island. Every day he would jog for upwards of thirty miles around the island. He’d jog over bridges as they collapsed, often while walking dogs. He was constantly doing extremely dangerous stunts, jumping over chasms and giving the local wildlife rangers heart attacks.

He’d  do all this just to get attention – he wanted to prove he knew some really crazy magic tricks, and that was how he was able to do it. He had learned the magic tricks from a famous old stage magician who was  secretly his grandpa. Everyone thought the magician had died with no heirs, but the old man knew better. You see, the magician had been a family friend and had attended a big wedding many years ago. He had gotten incredibly drunk at this wedding… along with the mans grandmother. What nobody realized until years later was that the man’s grandmother and the magician had gotten secretly married at that wedding too, because they’d gotten so drunk. Because they were married, the woman learned all his tricks and passed them on to her grandson, who is now the old jogging man.

Eventually the old man got enough attention from the local park rangers that word got out about him. Eventually his story got to the Magic Castle, and they decided they would do a special on him. They were going to send their best young up-and-coming magician to learn his story and eventually do a televised show. Because of that, the island had become a tourist trap, with tons of lazy people showing up and expecting to have the whole story spoon-fed to them without doing any work. I was there, trying to follow the old man and the young magician, as they jogged around the island, up hills and over bridges. As I did so, tourists would yell at me and ask for me to explain what was going on.

And then I woke up.

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