Saturday, July 21, 2012

King Kong – They All Laughed

 When modern engineers see the pyramids of Egypt, they marvel: How could people so long ago, without heavy machines or modern building materials, build such impressive and enduring structures? Not for one second do they think that these pyramid builders were inferior because they did not have our modern technology.

This is true too of ancient Roman structures, bridges and aqueducts that still stand. Engineers do not shake their heads in pity at the achievements of these primitives.

No architect or builder enters Notre Dame cathedral and thinks that it’s such a shame that those poor fools in the past did such a poor job of it without the use of computer models.

No, when modern-day builders, engineers, and architects see these wonders, they are amazed that these geniuses of the past could do so much with so little.
So why do today’s students of film dismiss the past so quickly?

The fact that early filmmakers did not have such things as sound, color, wide-screen, steady-cams, non-linear editing systems, surround sound, small digital cameras with ultra-high resolution, or CGI, or whatever, is seen only as a limitation by many of the students I talk to.

They do not marvel at what the pioneers were able to do without our modern advantages; the early work is somehow inferior because technology has improved. But those early filmmakers, with so much less, were still able to produce classics.

Several years ago, I was giving a lecture at a university where most of the attendees were interested in animation and computer-generated effects. At one point I mentioned that they should watch the original 1933 version of King Kong and before I could get out another word they all laughed. It was, they thought, a ridiculous piece of advice.  

All these years later their laughter reverberates in my memory. How could they laugh at King Kong? I was stunned.

Sometimes I feel very lucky to have been born when I was because I got to live in an analog world. Stop-motion animation was still very much in use in the world of special effects and had changed very little since the very beginning of film. So what looks crude to younger eyes, because they have been weaned on computer-generated effects, does not look quite so crude to me.

I saw King Kong on television when I was five or so and it was magic. It was one of the things that got me interested in film. At that time, the film was nearly 40 years old and the effects worked as well on me as I’m sure they did on the 1933 audiences.

In fact, the King Kong animation of Willis O’Brien inspired a couple of generations of children to grow up and become filmmakers. One of those kids was Ray Harryhausen, who became a special effects icon. He was so popular that when people refer to his films they are “Ray Harryhausen films”: not the actor’s film, or director, or screenwriter, but the effects guy. No other effects artist can make that claim.

Peter Jackson says that King Kong is the film that made him want to make films. This is by no measure a rare claim for filmmakers, artists, animators, and effects people.

It is no coincidence that when comic book artist Art Adams created his series, starring an intelligent gorilla and his beautiful partner, that he called it Monkey Man and O’Brien after King Kong animator Willis O’Brien.

For me, and for the others who were inspired by Kong, he was a living, breathing creature. If stop-motion animation was “done,” just how Kong could seem so alive?

When I was a teenager and the technology would allow, I began to watch the animation one frame at a time to study just what O’Brien was doing. I learned a few things by doing that. When you watch Kong move, his fur seems to dance around and change erratically.  Seen a frame at a time it is clear to see that the hair changes from frame to frame because this is where O’Brien put his fingers to manipulate the model.
In fact, my friend Todd Masters and I spotted one or two surface gauges left in shots. Surface gauges are devices (a kind of pointer) used to keep track of a model’s position but are meant to removed before each frame is snapped. Even so, these “mistakes” did not take anything away from the illusion of life that O’Brien was able to imbue Kong with.

One day, I was watching the fight scene between Kong and a Tyrannosaurus Rex – at the end of the fight Kong breaks the jaw of the dinosaur. What I noticed after studying the fight was that Kong gets the idea to snap the jaw early in the fight – in fact he tries more than once to get a hold of his opponent’s jaw before he succeeds in his plan.
 What O’Brien did was give Kong a plan – Kong was thinking. Even though on the surface the animation may seem crude by today’s standards, what worked about the animation is timeless. I have seen more than a few modern computer-generated creatures that have less going on internally. These creatures are slick and polished on the outside, but vacant on the inside. They do not think. They do not feel. But King Kong did.

There is something to be learned from those who came before. They were able to do such much with the computing power of their own brains, imagination, and feelings.

To be fair to animators, many of them, more than most young filmmakers I have met, tend to know and respect the history of their craft. For them innovation and history walk hand in hand. (That said, I have met students who say they want to be character animators and have never heard of the legends in their field.)

It baffles me that in this, the Information Age, so many people don’t bother to take advantage of the vast knowledge at their fingertips. YouTube and Netflix are just sitting there, with all the treasures of the films of the past – and their lessons to be learned. The problem is that things that were once so bright and shiny that they lit up the world become dull and tarnished with the dust of time. Time has a way of making old things look useless, but look deeper.

Recently, audiences were amazed as a ghostly image of Tupac Shakur appeared on stage to work with living performers. This “hologram’ was initially hailed as a modern marvel – but though there was some modern technology involved, the basic technique is a 150-year-old theater trick for creating ghost effects on stage. Someone involved in this task knew and respected history. 

If you can learn to brush off the dust of time and look beneath the surface you may get a glimpse of genius. At the very least, you’ll learn not to laugh at the hard work of pioneers.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Movies I Like: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

If you weren’t around in 1982 you missed a crazy-good year for film. I have often said that it was the last great year for movies. Some disagree and I have heard all of the arguments to the contrary. But I tell you there was something about that year that I have not seen repeated since. The number of great, classics, influential or just plan fun movies to be released in 1982 is stunning. Here are just a few:

That’s a few of them and I suspect that even you younger readers have heard of one or two of these. This is not to say that I love every film listed above—I only mean to point out the quality, number, and variety of the films you had to choose from in ‘82.

It was so much fun to go to the movies then. One of the summer movies released that year was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Star Trek II was, of course, the sequel to the fantastically successful, but disappointing to fans, StarTrek: The Motion Picture.

Star Trek II is considered by many to be the best film in the Star Trek franchise. I think that’s probably true because it is the only Star Trek movie that is A MOVIE first and foremost. It aims to engage and entertain those who are not diehard fans. It tells a story—not only that, it tells a good story and it tells it well.

The Wrath of Khan’s story was conceived by producer Harve Bennett, who wrote an outline for the film, and then brought on writer Jack B. Sowards to write the screenplay.

The film’s director was Nicholas Meyer, himself a novelist and no slouch as a writer. (He had already written and directed a film called Time After Time about Jack the Ripper escaping into the 20th century using H.G. Wells’ time machine, so Wells must track him down. It’s a fun movie.)
 When Myer was brought in, the script needed help and he rewrote the movie in 12 days, though he did not take a writing credit. The story was a kind of sequel to an episode of the original Star Trek television series called “Space Seed,” where the crew of the USS Enterprise does battle with Khan—a genetically enhanced human being. 

Ricardo Montalbán as Khan
Star Trek II starts with what looks like a dangerous mission: a starship must decide whether to cross into an area called the Neutral Zone to rescue a ship in trouble, but to cross into this Neutral Zone is an act of war. The person in the captain’s chair decides to risk war and attempt a rescue. This is seen as an act of aggression by the enemy (the Klingons) who attack the starship. During the attack, many of the bridge officers are killed, including Mister Spock.

When all is lost, a door slides open, and a figure enters and calls for the lights to be turned up—this is Captain (now-Admiral) Kirk. With his entrance the “dead” rise and brush themselves off.

This, it turns, out is a simulation—a test called the Kobayashi Maru designed to put young officers in the position of having to make an impossible decision—a “no-win scenario.” It is a chance for them to face death.

Doctor McCoy questions staffing the Starship Enterprise with inexperienced cadets and mentions it to Kirk as the old bridge crew looks on.

Admiral, wouldn't it be easier to put an experienced crew back on the ship?

Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young, Doctor.

Now, what is that supposed to mean?

Soon after this opening Kirk meets up with his old friend Spock. Upon seeing him, Kirk jokes, referring to the simulation, “Aren’t you dead?” This is a bit of foreshadowing because this is a film where Spock does die.

See how the film has just begun, and already the subjects of death and aging have already come up so naturally? Not missing a beat, it is in this scene where Spock presents Kirk with a birthday gift—an old book.

(reading from book) "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." —Message, Spock?


None that I'm conscious of. Except of course; happy birthday! —Surely the best of times.

The book is of course Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and its opening line matters in this story. Kirk does not seem to be happy about his birthday—for him this is not the best of times.

Later, Kirk’s old friend Dr. McCoy drops by Kirk’s home with a birthday gift. Along with a bottle of alien spirits, McCoy also brings the gift of reading glasses. Again, the idea of aging.

It comes up here that Kirk is not happy being an administrator, but he is feeling his age and feels as he said before that “galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young.”

Dammit, Jim, what the hell is the matter with you? Other people have birthdays, why are we treating yours like a funeral?

(He could have just as easily said, “Dammit, Jim, this should be the best of times and you’re treating it as the worst of times!”)

These dualities of old and young, life and death, creation and destruction are at the center of this piece.

For the sake of space I will move quickly through some of the story.

Khan, an old enemy of Kirk’s, takes over a starship called The Reliant to seek revenge on Kirk. Khan has also found out about something called “Project Genesis.” He finds a way to lure Kirk into a trap, in part using an old love interest of Kirk’s, Dr. Carol Marcus, who is in charge of Project Genesis.

Kirk, not suspecting that he is about to be attacked, is caught off-guard when The Reliant, a starship in his own fleet, fires on his ship causing major damage.
 It is at this point, when the Enterprise is crippled in space, that Khan reveals himself as the attacker. He demands that Kirk surrender and transfer all information regarding Project Genesis over to him. Kirk is able to stall Khan for a moment while he “receives” the Genesis data; we see Kirk hesitate as he puts on his eyeglasses, a symbol of the weaknesses of age.

Kirk manages to outsmart Khan and cripple his ship in return. Now Kirk goes with Spock and McCoy to see just what this Genesis Project is. They learn that it is a kind of missile that when deployed to a dead moon can turn the lifeless world into a thriving ecosystem. This is the discussion that follows:

Dear Lord. You think we're intelligent enough to... suppose...what if this thing were used where life already exists?

It would destroy such life in favor of its new matrix.

Its "new matrix"? Do you have any idea what you're saying?

I was not attempting to evaluate its moral implications, Doctor. As a matter of cosmic history, it has always been easier to destroy than to create.

Not anymore; now we can do both at the same time! According to myth, the Earth was created in six days. Now, watch out! Here comes Genesis! We'll do it for you in six minutes!

Really, Dr. McCoy. You must learn to govern your passions; they will be your undoing. Logic suggests...

Logic? My God, the man's talking about logic; we're talking about universal Armageddon! You green-blooded, inhuman...

From a story construction standpoint, Project Genesis is brilliant—it both creates life and destroys it. Again, this duality of life and death intermingled.

Because I don’t like these posts to get too long (too late), I won’t go through the entire film, but I could. This life/death young/old thing never lets up. During the film, Kirk meets his son: Birth. And he also loses his best friend: Death.

It comes out that Kirk cheated when he took the Kobayashi Maru as a cadet. He has never faced death until now. But seeing his friend gallantly sacrifice his life so that others could live teaches Kirk the value of facing death head on.

Notice how even Spock’s death is about the duality of life and death—he dies to save lives. 
Near the film’s end when Kirk sits down to read the book that Spock gave him for his birthday, he finds that his glasses are broken. He is not an old man. He then has this talk with his son:

David Marcus
Lieutenant Slavic was right: You never have faced death.

No. Not like this. I haven't faced death. I've cheated death. I've tricked my way out of death and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity. I know nothing.

David Marcus
You knew enough to tell Saavik that how we face death is at least as important as how we face life.

Just words.

David Marcus
But good words.

Lastly, as Kirk looks out at the newly formed Genesis planet, where they have deposited the body of Spock, he recites some of A Tale of Two Cities:

It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done before. A far better resting place that I go to than I have ever known.

Carol Marcus
Is that a poem?

No. Something Spock was trying to tell me. On my birthday.

You okay, Jim? How do you feel?

Young. I feel young.

"Young. I feel young."
This kind of focus on theme is the kind of thing I rarely see anymore, but it is powerful when it is used. In the case of Star Trek II it created both a hit and a classic. I wish more screenwriters would follow Khan’s lead.