Magic Outside of the Computer: The Dying Art of Non Digital Effects Work

Good morning everyone. My first article on the new website PolyMedium is now available for reading.

In this article, I decided to take a look at some of my favorite effects techniques that have since gone on to be underused in films since computer generated imagery became more widely used. Hope you all enjoy.

Magic Outside of the Computer: The Dying Art of Non Digital Effects Work

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Happy Alien Day

Sixteen years ago, I saw my first R Rated film. That experience began my love affair with horror and science fiction, and it remains one of my absolute favorite film series of all, surpassing Star Wars, Star Trek, and James Bond.

That film was Aliens. Both this film and the original 1979 thriller Alien remain two of my favorite movies, standing the test of time as among the most perfectly conceived horror and science fiction films ever made.

Which is why today is a special day. It is the first Alien Day.

Like Star Wars Day (May the 4th), Alien has been given its own day as well, named after the planet on which much of the first two films are based, LV 426. Today is April 26, or 4/26 on the calendar.

When I was young, I didn’t like horror. I could barely get through the original 50s versions of Creature From the Black Lagoon or The Thing, and was most nervous about seeing these at the tender age of 11. Unbelievably though, more than fear, I was excited, thrilled, and engaged in the story from start to finish. This series taught me that sometimes going after that thing that creeps in the dark can be the most fun you’ll ever have.

Please join me in wishing everyone a Happy Alien Day. This series remains a benchmark in science fiction horror, and hopefully its future will be just as bright and bloody.

Alien Day Chestburster

Downer Endings

Every once in a while you have that conversation with someone where you got into a book or a film you really enjoyed. One of the most significant parts of any story is the ending, as the third act is where the action of any story comes to a head. You will often find that story with the dreaded ‘downer’, one that doesn’t provide any sense of relief or satisfaction when the story is done, and just leaves you feeling on edge or depressed. As much as we dislike these endings, sometimes they are necessary.

In the endings discussed below, I’ll try to keep things spoiler free while still explaining how and why they work.

Some genres work well with the so called ‘downer ending.’Tragedies such as Romeo &  Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth and so forth have incredibly bleak endings where the heroes are denied their happy endings, in spite of the stories constantly, sometimes cruelly, teasing us with the promise of them riding off into the sunset. It is this unattainability of the happy ending that makes these stories so frustrating, but at the same time so endearing. They would not have had their long lasting power had they contained more upbeat endings. Other genres such as horror and thrillers often set their characters up for less than sunny conclusions, as per the conventions of the genre. Sometimes a bleak ending is just appropriate for a story, and having your heroes escape it can betray what the narrative is all about.

Dystopian stories for example are about being stuck in a cruel oppressive world and the despair such a world can bring. 1984, Brave New World, The Giver and Harrison Bergeron have notoriously dark endings, but one must think of just how the protagonists could have gotten out of the scrapes they were in. Each having the happy revolutionary ending would have quickly turned the genre stale and repetitive. Like tragedies, having a happy ending in such stories would have done more harm than good, because it would have negated the purpose of the narrative. The purpose of dystopian fiction is about the dangers of losing individuality and freedom. The most effective way to convey that message is to not to show an individual the audience cares about rise up and save the day, but show them being destroyed.

There can be a compromise to this type of ending in dystopian fiction. Escape From New York is a good example, where the hero still triumphs and delivers one final insult to the system that used him. When all is said and done though, the oppressive system is still in power, ready to use someone who won’t be as resilient as our hero. Though our hero is safe at the end, the rest of the world is not.

Horror is another example of a genre that can require a downer ending. Looking at classic horror stories like The Wolf Man, Halloween, Frankenstein, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and others, they have some very bleak, but also satisfying endings. This is because the primary focus of horror stories is to frighten their audience. Sometimes the most effective horror is that which continues after the story is finished, leaving the audience with that one final sentence or image that stays with them after the final page is turned or the end credits roll. You go to bed at night, find yourself unable to turn off the lights, and find yourself jumping at shadows. There’s something enjoyable about being scared in this way, and it’s something very hard to do if the story ends with the evil vanquished.

There are examples of successful horror stories that have happy endings. Jaws and Poltergeist are a few. In those cases though, it seems tonally appropriate for the stories to end on the notes they do. By contrast, take a look at a movie like The Thing. This story tells of a twelve man crew in Antarctica battling a shape shifting alien able to mimic any life form it touches perfectly, right down to their memories. An atmosphere of paranoia and dread permeates the entire film as the ever dwindling crew tries to find out who among them is the imposter. The film’s ending offers no guarantee the villain has been vanquished, leaving the audience with the same uncertainty the characters have. Anything else would have been a cheat.

Even a crowd pleaser story can have a somewhat bleak ending. Raiders of the Lost Ark for example is one of the best films ever made, as well as one of the most guaranteed good times anyone can ever have at the movies. In the end, our hero does triumph over evil, throwing many Nazis under trucks and in plane propellers in the process. But the Ark of the Covenant, the artifact he sought to keep it out of the wrong hands, is taken away from him by members of the government. As Indiana Jones leaves with Marion Ravenwood, he wonders whether he has done the right thing, or if the Ark should have been left buried. The Ark is wheeled away into a warehouse, perhaps set to be misused all over again. Even with a bleak ending like this, people still left the theater satisfied.

A dark ending can sometimes be necessary note on which a story can end, but sometimes not. As a happy ending can be forced, so can a ‘downer.’ I may stir the pot when saying this, but I didn’t much like the ending of Easy Rider because it seemed to go too dark. Prior to the ending, there’s a scene between Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper where Fonda laments that they may have all the money they will ever need, but their trip was a spiritual failure. That would have been a perfect ending for the movie. It was bleak, but also thought provoking, and showed how the characters had grown. Then it continues on, ending on a note that seemed to speak of the hardships the counterculture was facing at the time. I argue the movie already made that point before, so to me, the ending was overkill. I understand many will disagree as this is a beloved film, and rightfully so. Just remember that if you want to end your story on a downer, only do it if the story calls for it.

One of the primary purposes of fiction is to allow us an escape from mundanity and grant us a little excitement for a few hours. However, fiction does have another purpose, and that’s to examine the real world, the good and the bad of it. It is a sad fact that in the real world, not every life has a happy ending, so putting the dreaded ‘downer’ in a story may make it easier on someone when something doesn’t work out for real. Lets face it, you can’t cheat your way out of a sad ending in life. Also, these bleak endings can serve as warnings for us in the real world. They usually come from the characters in the story making mistakes. If we see those mistakes, and learn from them, maybe those sad endings don’t have to be ours.

Balancing Convention & Innovation

A few years ago, it must have been around 2012, I went to a lecture being given by one of my professors, my teacher in screenwriting. The topic of the day was stories, more specifically, how to keep an audience invested in genre pieces and series. My professor put forward this little tidbit.

“The key is the audience wants both convention and innovation. The audience goes into a story wanting to see some of their favorite character types, cliches and story beats, but they want to see these things done in new and interesting ways.”

Though it took me a while, I eventually came to understand what he meant.

It goes back to the old saying about stories, and that’s that everything has been told, just not in every way. There are so many story elements that we have collectively inherited in our culture that they can be put together any number of interesting ways to create something completely new. If you stick too close to the same formula, you will eventually run stale. That’s a risk best illustrated by a long running film series.

The Friday the 13th series is very beloved among horror fans. The original film was a charming little horror story based around campfire lore. Unfortunately this didn’t lend a lot of room for innovation. Though the early films enjoyed great success, the series quickly went from charming to tedious. The villain rose from the grave, was pitted against a psychic, and thrown into New York and even space, but it was just the same thing with a few insignificant changes of setting. The make-up became dull, there was no suspense over who would live or die, and the scares could be predicted with the regularity of a kitchen timer. But if you experiment too much, you lose what made something attract people to begin with. How does one find a healthy medium?

There aren’t a lot of series that I would call perfect, but the original Indiana Jones trilogy is certainly one of them. Each of the original three movies is so different from the others, yet they fit together so well as self contained stories but also a larger arc. Part of the draw to the original film was watching the hero go to many exotic locales, so in this case the experimentation helped a great deal. Though the artifacts he differed greatly, they still followed a certain set of rules, a MacGuffin the hero needs to get that usually causes the death of the villain. More importantly, the series expanded on the character without destroying him. The Bond-esque ladies’ man was revealed to have a more tender side when he risked his life to save enslaved children, and his feelings of inadequacy were explored quite nicely through his turbulent relationship with his father. Through it all, these films still delivered on the spectacular action and clever wit that made the original great.

But this is just looking at innovation and experimentation within a series. That alone can be fun and challenging to try new things while still delivering on the promises of a specific property. To start something new however, that’s where the entire collective heritage of fiction becomes your playground.

Moving beyond self contained series, there is a variety of ways one can experiment with existing genres. Taking the conventions or iconography of one genre and blending them with another is a fascinating way to creature wholly original works. The Star Wars series for example doesn’t follow typical science fiction conventions, though it is often labeled as science fiction. Instead, it follows more along the lines of medieval fantasy, with sword battles, princesses needing to be saved, and evil kingdoms to be toppled. This is a tale of swords and chivalry that just so happens to be in space, with spaceships and lasers.

Another successful example of genre blending is the 1984 classic, The Terminator. This masterpiece was modeled after the slasher films that were popular at the time, its title character in many ways being the ultimate slasher archetype. This piece of concept art done by James Cameron shows the Terminator wielding a butcher knife, when the film was originally pictured sticking closer to its slasher roots. Cameron incorporated things like time travel, assassination plots, dispensed with bladed weapons in favor of firearms, and created a vast mythology around the simple plot of a robot trying to kill a down on her luck waitress. The result is something that does follow slasher conventions, including a high bodycount, punishment of sexual promiscuity and a prolonged final chase. With these new elements however, The Terminator overcame its competition and became hailed as a classic of creative storytelling, even though its origins are in one of the most maligned genres in cinema.

Slasher films have been used as the basis for many classics. They were heavily influential on monster movies that came after, such as Alien and Predator, and even influenced action films such as Die Hard, where the hero colorfully dispatches a number of villains in an isolated setting with the same brutality as a Jason Voorhees. The story of a mad slasher is so simple, that many things can be done with it in blending genres. This makes it one of the best examples of how one can experiment with a certain genre to create new stories.

This is true for any genre. The story about a knight saving a princess from a dragon? How about a dragon saving a princess from her evil would be suitor instead? An Oliver Twist kind of story about a boy moving off to a better life? What if the boy was a wizard and got sent to Hogwarts? Have a story of adventurers out to kill a beast? How about those adventurers become a cop, biologist and fisherman out to kill a giant shark?

Convention and innovation can go hand in hand, and great things can come of their partnership. Though by this point, I was no longer in class with that particular professor. He wasn’t even aware I had gone to see him as a matter of fact. That simple statement though on using both convention and innovation was the most important thing he ever taught me out of every lesson he ever gave. It is fascinating how the smallest things can put creative storytelling into perspective.