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:
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.
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:
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.
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?
(wrote this one awhile back, never got around to posting; testing if that’s even possible from China)
Industrial Light and Magic is dead.
Not the digital effects company, but the old ILM – the model shop that did Star Wars. The one that spun off from ILM under the name Kerner Optical. The one that, I think it’s fair to say, for which moviegoers have more sentimentality.
I only got to visit once, in 2004, before the company split in two. The location of the facility was a closely-guarded secret, and the directions were confusing. One wrong turn and you end up at San Quentin Prison (we did). When we got to the address given, we thought we must be in the wrong place. It was a suburban neighborhood, with a street full of large, nondescript buildings.
As we approached, a pair of door-to-door salesmen were exiting one of the buildings, politely escorted by a plainclothes man with a walkie-talkie. As they left, they angrily yelled, in between hurling epithets, “I didn’t even know you were security! I bet your neighbors aren’t such dicks!” – only to realize that in the doorway of the neighboring building now stood another plainclothes man with a walkie talkie. The next building, too. And across the street. Suddenly these two were surrounded on all sides by security. And we realized, as we came to the doorway marked Kerner Optical Company as camouflage, that every building on Kerner Street was ILM.
It was a memorable trip.
I thought about this when sitting in the airport recently, when, amidst the news coverage, the business section began talking about the weekend’s box office receipts. Specifically, what movies had been flops, what wasn’t making money, in short, what was rotten about Hollywood nowadays.
Everyone has an opinion on the Oscars. Nobody has one about the annual chewing gum awards.
Hollywood is an odd place to fail. The industry’s failures are messy, frequent, public, and oddly personal. I wonder sometimes if financial analysts get told they’re forcing diarrhea down the public’s throat – because it’s happened to me. I wonder if BP employees have their opinions completely denigrated and told that they should shut up and go back to their, air-quotes, “job” – because it’s happened to me.
(Hell, I wonder if that happens to people at *Pixar*.)
It gets to me because if it didn’t, I couldn’t do my job. I work long, long hours, on projects for which I often don’t care. But I push. We all push. Because we love our work and even if it isn’t the best movie in the world, it is our job to make it the best movie it can be. We have to make our part shine. So we do. And then?
“Putting lipstick on a pig.”
“Polishing a turd.”
I’ve heard them all. I’ve said them all, in spite of myself. I mean, I drew a picture of one of the main characters from the movie I just worked on – split into pieces, blood and entrails everywhere – and put it easy view of one of the most heavily-visited areas at work. There is an on-going joke about me doing an art show somewhere on campus titled “I am not a team player.” Mea culpa.
It’s easy to be a cynic. It’s easy to poke your nose into someone else’s business and proclaim your opinion. Hell, some people build their entire existence around it. Little Roman emperors, giving gladiators thumbs up or thumbs down. But it’s not sustainable. Just look at the tales of two Conans (one, two). How they took positive stands even when they had every reason not to. Because to do otherwise would destroy them. Would destroy what they love. Would render them incapable of doing their jobs.
It’s harder to create than to consume. It’s harder to wrestle with life’s imperfections than to dismiss the entirety of this sometimes-difficult, often-disappointing world with one queasy “meh.” It’s hard.
So here’s to the old ILM. Thank you for the good times. And to the new ILM, here’s looking forward to more stellar work.
There are very few moments in my life I’d consider to be perfect, but watching this concert live was one of them:
When I saw that someone had created a “master edit” out of the user-uploaded videos from people who were there, I had to watch it. And it sent chills up my spine, same as being there.
Watching this, I wonder if my children will be able to revisit all of the important moments of their lives like this – or whether the powers that be will manage to disable everyone’s cameras but their own and sell a managed, packaged, sanitized version of their experiences back to them.
Earlier this week, I finalized my work on Puss in Boots. The work then got un-finalized, but still – I’m right at the end of the show. And it’s been a tough one — I’ve been stressed out for weeks on end, and have barely seen most of my friends. I’ve been very busy.
Not that my busy-ness level is easy, necessarily, to gauge. I’m always on instant messenger. I reply to text messages quickly. I post a lot on Facebook. I can speak informedly on world news. I’ve probably seen that cute cat video before you have. Hell, everyone here has probably caught me at my desk with some completely-non-work-related website up. These are not the actions of a busy man.
To understand this, you have to understand how I work.
To put it briefly, I don’t have direct control over my work. Unlike an animator or a storyboard artist, who has immediate, interactive feedback with what they do (move the pen, get a line), I’m dealing with abstracts. For example, making a splash involves creating and animation millions upon millions of tiny points that represent water particulate. You can’t animate them by hand. You have to cede control to the computer, in the form of simulations.
We don’t know when we start the simulation if it will do what we want. We may have to program in new behaviors or edit existing ones. Increase gravity, decrease friction. Play with the laws of physics. Define some really complex behaviors, all interacting with each other: wind, gravity, buoyancy, viscosity, on and on and on. Write some code. It’s a lot of guesswork, math, and imagination. And then hand it to the computer, let it crunch the numbers, and hope for the best.
What I’m saying here is this: my job is more about time management, cleverness, and ingenuity than artistic ability necessarily. I have to be able to forecast how long something will take, and test within the best of my abilities how it will work, before giving it over to the computer. This means limited, 5-minute simulations to test individual aspects of my effect, before the 6-hour version of the simulation. What can I get done overnight? What can I get done over lunch? What can the computer get done while I work on something else? I need to constantly be feeding the computer tasks, or I’m falling behind. I’m always gathering information. Always keeping the computer going.
This means I come upon many pockets of downtime – sometimes just a minute, sometimes an hour or more. Usually I ping-pong between different effects and different shots, but often I’m waiting. And I’ll check Facebook for a minute. Or the news. Or listen to a podcast. Trying to continue to live life, sneaking it in a minute at a time.
It’s stressful, splitting your attention a hundred ways. Having a life becomes one more task you’re juggling.
Puss in Boots has been stressful.
Here’s the problem: most of these activities don’t require my undivided attention. And I start to have trouble keeping it undivided. I’m experienced enough at my job that many of my tasks are done as a matter of reflex. And when I do need that focus? Those rare scenarios that need real problem-solving? That’s where the real stress starts. That sort of concentration involves a zen-like state of mind that takes time and effort to attain, and is easily shattered by distractions. Like test result notifications. Like emails. Like text messages. Like my entire life.
Some things in life deserve your undivided attention. Being physically incapable of providing it is a horrible feeling.
It’s frustrating and deadening to realize you are not engaged by the majority of your work. To live off of information nuggets instead of substantial works. To be addicted to the flow of the new. To be an info-junkie. So addled with things happening around you that you can’t always think straight.
Which is why I write. Because it requires focus. It demands I unite the disparate parts of my brain, that I sit them down and give them purpose. That I pull myself together and feel whole. Even just for a little bit.
For the past several months, I’ve been on a mission. One movie that I worked on, early in my career, introduced me to the concept of “tent removal” — that is, the erasure of an untimely erection through the usage of digital effects. I was very nearly tasked with it (and so very nearly earned the credit of “crotch wrangler”), but narrowly dodged that bullet. But it got me thinking, who else has had to do that?
So I started asking around.
And around a hundred emails and a half-dozen in-person interviews later, I’m likely one of the foremost experts on the subject.
So, in the interests of spreading the knowledge around, I am going to be giving a presentation on this very obscure topic this Thursday, at Mindshare LA. It promises to be a very entertaining, slightly insane thing. If you’re reading this and you’re in LA, I recommend that you attend.
Been a looong while since the last update, and a lot of stuff has happened. Will try and catch up on posts this week, but in the meantime, there was an excellent article in Variety highlighting one of the big reasons I got out of effects as a career. It’s originally posted here, but I’m copy-pasting it in case that link goes offline.
So I saw Marie Antoinette, which was long, drawn-out, and ultimately pointless — which was exactly the point.
So pretty much everyone in the movie was a vacuous bint, obsessed with
The characters did not have much depth, much in the way of interpersonal connections, or much substance to them. They lived a carefree existence, blithely ignoring all around them, until there were people with pitchforks at their doors, bringing them to the guillotine.
Now, how many insubstantial, gossipy, fashion-, partying-, and pet-obsessed people do you know, who live well beyond their means, ignoring all the bad news in the world in favor of keeping an ignorantly blissful life? As I watched the movie, I kept thinking of every pair of ridiculous shoes I’d seen on some woman’s feet, every cutesy Hello Kitty-esque mascot I’d seen on someone’s overpriced handbag, and every sweater-wearing dog I’d ever seen out for a walk.
Have to wonder when the head-chopping’s going to start. When do tickets go on sale?