Unstoppable and end of suspense

I went to see UNSTOPPABLE the other day and it was OK, but it was one of those films that made me think of what it could have been.  Tony Scott directed it, so you know what you’re going to get.  I like his movies, more recent ones especially.  He directs action.  Things move, and they move fast.  Things blow up, and they blow up big.  He’s all about energy and speed and action.

Action movies are great, but directors lately are so intent on moving forward, on getting to the next explosion or climax, that they forget to mix some suspense into the mix.

This was glaringly apparent in UNSTOPPABLE because the trains were not the demons of speed that Tony Scott obviously hoped they would be.  So rather than embrace the momentum inherent in the premise of his film, he uses every cheap trick in the book to get those trains moving.  (Some of them are embarrassingly cheap – like the shot of the train full of kids headed straight for the runaway train, then cut to safely off to the side, which is odd because there wasn’t an exit ramp in the shot before, but whatever, right?)

Suspense needs a little room to breathe and the train’s massive slowness would seem to me to provide a great opportunity.  It’s still going at 55, but on film, it’s never going to look like a roller coaster.  What’s the premise of this film?  It’s a missile the size of the Chrystler Building, right?  What difference does it make if it’s not moving at the speed of sound?  They can’t stop it!  That’s the point.

So a scene when the horse trailer is stuck on the tracks, it shouldn’t just happen and then be over.  A scene like that can last 15 minutes, if it’s done right.   Give us some time to know where everything is in the scene.  Give us some time to see how the characters react to their increasingly tense situation.  Get stuff in the way, and then get it stuck there, and then show what’s needed to get it out of there, and then show the train coming, and then they get more stuck, and the train gets closer, etc.  You get the idea.  Why were they in such a hurry to get done with this scene, anyway?  It’s not like they had another cool scene waiting around the corner.

But then I started thinking of all the other films I’ve seen in the last, I don’t know, five years.  I couldn’t think of one that was particularly suspenseful, or had any memorable suspense scene.  I’m sure I’m forgetting one, but my point is that action movies need to rediscover that central lifeblood of their make up.

Think of the scene of Bruce Willis in DIE HARD, when he’s in the air duct and the blond guy is shooting along the length.  It’s suspense.  Or in JURASSIC PARK, when they’re waiting for the T-Rex to show up.  The rest of the movie was crap, but that was the scene you remember – and it was a suspense scene.

Suspense is the soul of these films because without it, we know the end: the hero lives, saves the day, whatever.  There’s never any risk.  You never wonder if they’ll make it or not.  You need that because with out it, it’s just all the same speed.  It’s just one thing after another.  Suspense means that we’re invested in the film.  I just worry that, in an effort to keep the audience broad, and not upset anyone, they’ve actually decided that suspense in a film is a bad thing.

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Animation is changing our expectations

I’ve been waiting for some truly stylish innovation from indie film for a long time now, but maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong place.  Lately, having watched Ratatouille a hundred times with my kid, I’ve been wondering how the style of all the animation in films – and by this I’m including special effects films, which are essentially animated – is going to affect how we shoot and watch films.

The impossible fast moves of the “camera” in an animated film cannot be matched by a dolly pusher on a live action film (or can it?).  The precision of the shots, at the speed they are moving, can’t be recreated.

The perspective of the camera is often somewhere impossible, through a wall, sailing over the sky, down some winding stairway again zooming at incredible speeds.  It can’t be done traditionally, without computers.

The world that animated characters live in is completely created from scratch.  This kind of attention to detail would be pretty tough to achieve in a live action film, especially one that has to exist in the real world – ie. you can’t build every chair, you have to buy them.  An animated film literally designs every chair, everything, even if it takes its cues from the real world.

So how does this affect us in the world of live action films?

Well, by looking at the newest styles, the trend is to go against all that.  Mumblecore is the mode of the day.  Abandon style.  Let the shots linger.  Imperfection and sloppiness are the goals.  If you need speed, shoot handheld and move the camera around really fast.  All this in the quest of something called a “happy accident”, which is supposed to be some captured moment of truth.

I can’t imagine that this style is what is going to save cinema.  The next generation is growing up on animated films that have huge budgets and are generally models of perfection, even if the films aren’t that good.  Perfection, meaning that all the characters hit their mark and deliver their lines as someone wrote them.

It would be a much more exciting challenge to try to capture some of the innovations of animation and use them in a live action film that wasn’t a special effects driven megabudget film.  How can we get those camera speeds up?  Do we want to grab a shot from an angle where the camera couldn’t be?  Do we want to spend the time and money designing the details of a set, instead of cobbling together what we could find at Ikea?  I’m sure there’s a host of other innovations used by these animators.

Animators, or at least good ones, know that film is visual.  They storyboard a hundred times, adding shots, building sequences, creating visuals and action over the course of a few years.  Imagine a live action film taking that much time preparing those visuals.

Most importantly, this is how people are learning to watch films.  Filmmakers ignore it and they will mumble themselves into oblivion.