Archive | May 2018

Book Review: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction

Over the last 30 years, writer/director James Cameron has made a number of memorable, and successful films.

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Filmmaker James Cameron.

While he has delved into themes of espionage (True Lies) and period romance (Titanic), the bulk of his work takes place within the genre known as science fiction. Some of these films include The Terminator, The Abyss, and Avatar.

Recently, Cameron partnered with the television channel AMC, to create the six-part original series, AMC Visionaries: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction. For the show, Cameron’s goal was to sit down with six of the biggest names in science fiction, and get their perspectives on the importance, and the impact of the genre.

These guests include directors Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.), George Lucas (THX-1138, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), Christopher Nolan (Inception, Interstellar), Guillermo Del Toro (Pacific Rim, The Shape of Water), Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner), and actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger (who portrayed the Terminator in Cameron’s film series).

Insight Editions’ book reproduces Cameron’s interviews in full, and offers several topical summaries by a number of people familiar with science fiction. These topics include dark futures, artificial intelligence, time-travel, and much more.

When I saw the interview lineup, I did question the inclusion of Schwarzenegger (given that Arnold has never directed a science fiction film). However, Cameron seems to have also included himself, as an unofficial interviewee within the book.

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James Cameron’s painted concept of the Terminator, once Schwarzenegger was cast for the role.

One of his cohorts named Randall Frakes (who has worked with him on a number of projects), acts as the interviewer for Jim’s views on science fiction. Over the years, I’ve often heard the story of how Cameron was inspired by Star Wars, quit his job as a truck driver, and got into film profuction. With the Frakes/Cameron interview, it was definitely an eye-opening look into what makes Cameron tick regarding science fiction, as well as some of the decisions he makes regarding his films.

It should be noted that when Cameron gets around to interviewing his guests, he chooses to mainly discuss the science fiction topics their work tends to focus on. For example, you won’t find Guillermo Del Toro expounding on time-travel, but you will get his views on monsters in science fiction (plus, he talks about the time he and a friend encountered a UFO!).

If you’ve studied any of the directors that Cameron interviews, you’re probably going to find some overlap with the information they provide. I was already well-versed in Spielberg’s handling of the late Stanley Kubrick’s unfinished film A.I. (Artificial Intelligence), and most of what he talks about during his interview, I was well aware of.

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Director George Lucas (left), explains his thought processes to James Cameron (right).

Of all the interviews, I felt that George Lucas’ discussion with Cameron came across as a bit ‘detached’ at times. One can sense Cameron wanting to possibly steer the conversation a little deeper towards Star Wars, but George doesn’t seem that interested in dissecting something he’s probably already discussed dozens of times before. Of interest to me, was his expounding a bit deeper into his feelings about inter-connectivity and micro-bacteria, which seemed to tie into that most loathed of prequel subjects: midichlorians. George also comes across as more of a realist, than his more optimistic friend, Steven.

While Spielberg and Lucas were two of the guys I was very familiar with, it was the likes of Nolan, Scott, and Del Toro whom I had little knowledge of.

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Filmmaker Ridley Scott.

Of the three, it is Ridley Scott who is the ‘old master’ of science fiction here, and one can almost feel Cameron acting like an excited fan, getting to interview a man after his own heart.

In recent years, Scott has made a comeback into science fiction with films like Prometheus and The Martian, which Cameron seems to have been heavily enamored with (he mentions it’s ‘science-fact’ premise to a number of his interviewees). Of course, the pendulum swings both ways, as Scott tells Cameron that Avatar inspired him to consider returning to the realms of science fiction.

The book also gets a teensy bit ‘political’ as it delves into some topics, such as how people perceive science in this day-and-age. I was surprised during one interview where Cameron seemed to ‘hijack’ the conversation, and expound a bit on his own views and research about artificial intelligence. While he didn’t feel that his Terminator films were some form of self-fulfilling prophecy, he does tell about an experience regarding how some people may be looking to misuse A.I., the way people ended up making a mess of things with atomic energy.

Along with a number of visuals from science fiction films (via still-frames and posters), the book is filled with a number of original art pieces created by Cameron. Most people are not aware that he is also an artist, and has been doing science fiction art for many years, whether for his own pleasure, or as concept pieces for films he has done.

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Concept art made by James Cameron, for his unmade science fiction short, Xenogenesis.

Most notable are a number of concept drawings and paintings done for an unmade short called Xenogenesis. It is fascinating to look at these, and see how Cameron utilized them in other films he’s done.

A prime example is this piece on the left. The giant robotic vehicle has elements that would be utilized for the tank-like Hunter-Killers in 1984’s The Terminator, while the female character doing battle with it in her own mechanical vehicle, seems eerily reminiscent of Ripley’s battle with the Alien Queen in his 1986 film sequel, Aliens.

For those expecting Cameron to mostly sit aside and let his guests speak, you may find yourselves disappointed. This isn’t someone from the entertainment section of a news program asking throwaway questions, but someone who is here to ask some very deep questions.

Readers may also grow a little tired, as Cameron tends to monopolize some conversations. This is most notable in his own interview with Frakes. It seems that Jim could go on-and-on with all the information he’s accumulated over the years.

Even so, James Cameron’s The Story of Science Fiction is a book I would highly recommend to those who are fans of Cameron, or any of the guests he speaks with. Even if you may know a lot about a few of those being interviewed, what you glean from reading about the additional guests and the science fiction genre in general, will surely be an eye-opener to many.

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Movie Musings: Remembering ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,’ 10 Years Later

Inspired by the Saturday Matinee Serials like Flash Gordon and Commando Cody that he saw as a boy, George Lucas would combine his memories of those shows with mythology and “the hero’s journey,” to create one of the most pop-culturally loved (and loathed) space-adventure series of all time.

Though not much of a storyteller, George was largely a man of ideas, and on a Hawaiian beach with Steven Spielberg in 1977, he shared another serial-inspired idea with his famous friend.

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L to R: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford on the set of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

While Steven had been trying to get the family of Albert Broccoli to allow him to direct a James Bond film, George claimed he had an idea that was “better than Bond.”

Lucas’ concept of an archaeologist/professor intrigued Steven, and the two directors made a pact to do a trilogy of films around the character.

With Harrison Ford cast as the lead, Indiana Jones made his whip-cracking debut in 1981 in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and quickly became a worldwide hit. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom followed in 1984, and while a much darker film than it’s predecessor, it still turned a profit. Five years later, the trilogy was completed, with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

However, even though he had created an entertaining action-film trilogy, the public wanted more. Following the release of Crusade, Steven would often be asked, “when are you making another Indiana Jones movie?”

The same was asked of Harrison Ford and George Lucas, and after a reunion with the cast and crew, almost everyone who had been involved seemed okay with doing another film…except Steven.

In a making-of excerpt, Spielberg explained that he was ‘the hold-out,’ and felt the scene of the characters riding off into the sunset at the end of Last Crusade, was a fitting closure to Dr Jones’ story on film.

In the end, Steven was coaxed along by his friends, and after a decade or so of prep-work, Henry Jones Jr, would return to the big-screen.

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Aliens…why’d it have to be aliens?

In the early years of the 21st century, it was commonplace for many to bash filmmaker George Lucas as an out-of-touch creator. His Special Edition releases of The Star Wars Trilogy had brought fans back to theaters, but purists were angered at the changes he had made. The release of the Star Wars prequels from 1999-2005, further cemented fan-hatred, when Lucas seemed unwilling to fulfill the words of what Obi-Wan Kenobi had told Luke Skywalker, in A New Hope.

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L to R: Producers Kathleen Kennedy and George Lucas, on the set of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

When it came to Indiana Jones, his adventures of fighting Nazi’s and trekking through strange-and-exotic locales in the first three films, fit into Lucas’ ode to the serials and the time period of the 1930’s. While Indy would weather the years and rarely change his ways, audiences would soon find that the world of the 50’s, was a very different place.

With the defeat of Hitler and the end of WWII, there was now a new war…a Cold War, and it involved the country of Russia. With Crystal Skull‘s 1957 time period, the film attempted to tie together real-life elements, such as the fear of Communism, the Red Scare, as well as the birth of The Atomic Age.

There was also a change in the adventure-film aesthetics. In Lucas’ mind, the concept of 1950’s B-movies, would influence Indy’s 1950’s adventure, much in the same way that the 1930’s serial had done with the first three films.

And, unlike artifacts that were a bit more tangible to the common person in western civilization (such as the Ark of the Covenant or The Holy Grail), the mcguffin for the new film, would be a bit more of an ‘abstract’ object, akin to the Sankara stones from Temple of Doom.

The new item, was a crystal skull, in the shape of an elongated alien’s head, that possessed psychic powers.

Upon hearing his friend’s idea to use aliens in the new film, Spielberg claimed that he was done with alien films, but Lucas was adamant that the new film would work with the alien mcguffin. Over the course of pre-production, it was the one storypoint that he would not compromise on: there would be aliens, end of story..or so he thought.

Finally, Lucas decided that instead of being aliens, the crystal-skulled creatures, would actually be ‘inter-dimensional beings,’ but with an alien appearance. And, while they would travel in flying saucers (another staple of 1950’s B-movies), they wouldn’t travel through space, but through time.

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Poster for Tokyo DisneySeas’ Temple of the Crystal Skull attraction.

Some may assume that Lucas’ concept of crystal skulls in the world of Indy was brand-new, but in fact, they had been thought of as a (non-alien-influenced) mcguffin for Dr Jones, as far back as the early 1990’s.

During that time, Lucas was producing The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. The television series showed Indy in various time periods of his life, and at one point, a script had been written where Indy went looking for a crystal skull. However, the series was cancelled, and the script was shelved…but the concept was still there.

The story concept would next find new life, when Tokyo Disneyseas (an expansion of Tokyo Disneyland), opened Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull in the fall of 2001.

While the ride’s innards would largely resemble Disneyland‘s Temple of the Forbidden Eye, the deity known as Mara would be replaced by a large, glowing crystal skull, that sent riders on a path to their doom.

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“You Can’t Go Home Again.”

I often recalled as a kid, the characters in Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comics, referencing this line. Taken from novelist Thomas Wolfe, I feel it best summarizes Lucas’ films where he returns to a familiar subject, after some time has passed.

When it comes the properties Lucas has been associated with over the years, people have very much been enamored with trying to recapture the magic they experienced, seeing those films in their youth. I recall how high the nostalgic factor was when Episode I debuted. Within hours of it’s release, it soon became apparent that George was not just going to shower his viewers with lots and lots of fanservice.

The same could be said when it came to Crystal Skull. However, I can’t help but feel there was a method to ‘the madness.’

Like the Star Wars prequels, it feels like many were hoping to walk in and encounter Indiana, as if no time had passed. Lucas isn’t really a sentimental individual, and it feels like the story concept for the film, was to show that Jones had to move on, and find a new group of people to be with in his life.

When we first encounter him, Jones is under suspicion of being in league with the Communists after the Area 51 opening. This puts his teaching career in jeopardy, and, we learn that two of the people in his life have recently died: Marcus Brody, and his father, Henry Jones, Sr.

As the story goes on, we see a new family unit build up around him. From the realization that Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf) is his son, to the fact that Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) still harbors feelings for him, and his old friend Harold Oxley (John Hurt), needs his help.

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L to R: Indy (Harrison Ford), Harold Oxley (John Hurt), Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf)

By the end of the film, Indy has a new ‘family,’ and we see him marrying Marion.

Some may find this an odd ending, given the old formula of how Jones encountered a new female lead with every film, but that was a younger Indy, and he isn’t quite the ladies man now, as he was in the 1930’s.

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Parallels to Previous Storylines

While many gave Crystal Skull a hard time, screenwriter David Koepp still attempted to retain certain through-lines, that drew parallels to the three previous films.

In Raiders, there was talk about how Hitler was ‘obsessed with the occult,’ which tied into the search for the Ark of the Covenant. In Skull, there is word that Stalin is interested in ‘psychic warfare,’ which ties into the search for the crystal skulls, and attempts to find the lost city of Akator.

The villains also figure into parallels to previous films.

Ever since Raiders, there has come a moment where Indiana usually has to take on a ‘big baddie.’ Whether it be the German mechanic in Raiders, or Colonel Dovchenko in Skull, Indy usually finds himself fighting a losing battle, until he is saved by happenstance, and his foe meets a gruesome demise.

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There is also the continual plotpoint about how the lead villain is searching for something, and once they get their hands on it…it usually leads to their demise (as seen in the screencaps above).

Indiana himself is also open to story parallels.

Almost every film involves him trekking deep into a temple or a darkened cavern. In these situations, it is usually Indy who is the brave one, while he has to contend with a cohort who is freaked out by what they find inside. Whether it be Marion with the snakes in Raiders or Mutt encountering a scorpion in Skull, each darkened space can be counted on to contain some creepy-crawlies.

There also is Indy’s doubt over the ‘mystical nature’ of the artifacts he is looking for. In each film, he starts out just thinking the mysticism surrounding the items is nonsense. Of course, by the end of the film, he has usually changed his tune.

Also by the end of the film, he usually ends up going home empty-handed, but has quite a story to tell.

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Closing Thoughts, and Ideas on Indiana Jones 5

Much like The Phantom Menace, Crystal Skull would clean-up at the worldwide box-office, but it’s ‘imperfections’ have made it the black sheep of the series, causing many to disavow that it ever happened.

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Tweet from the Alamo Drafthouse, about their Crystal Skull celebration/not-celebration.

The most notable one, happened recently when the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema announced they were holding a 10th anniversary party for the opening of Crystal Skull…by showing only the first three films (the equivalent of throwing someone a birthday party, and not inviting the guest-of-honor!).

Looking around online in the past few days, it does appear there are those that feel the same as I do about the film: while not a great film, it is far from the trainwreck many claim it to be…but then again, internet fanbases loves to throw pity-parties.

One of the most ridiculous comments I heard following the release of Crystal Skull, was some fans ‘demanding’ that a fifth film be made to ‘apologize’ for the fourth one.

Rumors persisted that we might still get an Indy 5, notably in regards to The Walt Disney Company acquiring Lucasfilm in 2011 (whose purchase included ownership of both Star Wars and Indiana Jones licenses).

Now, word is that another film is coming to pass, with Harrison Ford once again cracking the whip…but, for the last time. Ford is now in his mid-70’s, and given Indy’s rough-and-tumble penchant for action and stunts, it makes sense this will be his last outing.

Scheduled for a July 2020 release, what the fifth installment will entail has not been revealed. Word is that Lucas declined to be involved with the film’s development, but David Koepp (who wrote the screenplay for Crystal Skull), is currently involved. However, it sounds like the new family Indy found for himself in his previous outing, may not return, and plunge the adventurer into a new area. With Shia Lebeouf having distanced himself from Spielberg, and John Hurt passing away last year, that just leaves Karen Allen, though there’s been no word if she’ll return as “Mrs Jones.”

Some of you might be wondering, where is is there left to explore? Well, given that the filmmakers like to have Indy associated with certain time frames, I have one possible locale: Vietnam.

Given Indy has already dealt with Germans and Russians, I could see him having been cleared of spy charges, and then ends up over in Vietnam in the mid-60’s. Given at the time a lot of young men were being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, I could imagine one of them becoming disillusioned, attempting to defect, and following Dr Jones on an adventure into the surrounding jungle territories.

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An interpretation of The Monkey King, by artist Aaron Shepard.

Of course, the big question you may have is, what would Indy be looking for? Why, The Temple of the Monkey King.

Also known as Sun Wukong, the Monkey King is known in a number of different Asian cultures. Resembling a monkey and having supernatural powers, some of the tales revolving around the character, tie into the concepts that the creature or certain items around him, can grant one immortality.

A story involving the Monkey King had been considered for both The Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade, and given how previous unused story ideas have often been recycled into later stories, I could see this being a good candidate to pay homage to some of the past story ideas Lucas considered.

Of course, some might say it could be a story retread, given the Holy Grail was a relic that promised ‘eternal life,’ but if the story was probably tweaked a bit more beyond what I can imagine, it might make for a fitting end. Plus, given technological leaps these days, one can imagine a motion-captured rendition of the Monkey King, interacting with Indiana Jones (though whether the old-school fans would accept this, is hard to say).

Of course, what you’ve read in the last couple paragraphs is just me speculating. I don’t have actual inside information, just a few ideas of my own. Still, if the Monkey King idea is dusted off, I’ll be interested to see what is done.

Otherwise, we’ll see if Spielberg and Koepp may find another religion-based mcguffin for Jones to go after in a few years.

Journeys Through Life: Animating Life – The Art, Science and Wonder of Laika

When it comes to the art of stop-motion animation, the creation of what goes into it is quite fascinating, but there’s no denying that it is probably the most tedious and frustrating of animation techniques.

This isn’t just drawing figures on paper, or moving them in three-dimensional space within a computer. Stop-motion requires someone to physically alter a three-dimensional figure within a real-world space. Moving their limbs, rotating an eyeball, maybe even ruffling their hair or clothes. Plus, there’s the construction of miniature sets, let alone lighting them for the proper mood and tone. Action has to be shot on one frame of film at a time…and if you mess up, you have to start all over again!

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A Laika animator, setting up a scene from Paranorman.

Fortunately, there are those who have the tolerance and patience to pull off this feat, and a number of them are in the Portland, Oregon area.

Laika Studios was founded there in 2005, and ever since they released Coraline in February of 2009, I’ve made it a point to see each of their new stop-motion releases. Over the last decade, they have become my favorite North American animation studio, eclipsing my feelings for PIXAR (feels good to know we haven’t had a Coraline 2 yet!).

The studio’s mandate to forego test-screenings, let alone float the possibility that their films may scare ‘the little ones,’ always has me eager to see what chances they’ll take.

While I had seen several pieces of production material related to Paranorman when visiting Universal Studios Hollywood in 2013, word that Animating Laika would showcase items from all four of the studio’s films, made me eager to make my first visit to Portland, Oregon.

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When one enters the museum through it’s Park Avenue entrance, guests are immediately greeted by The Pink Palace, from the Other World in Coraline.

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Laika’s largest stop-motion puppet, is this 18-ft skeleton, from Kubo and the Two Strings.

Once you make it past the pink palace (it may take awhile!), you then enter the central hall of the museum…where you come face-to-face with the studio’s largest stop-motion puppet: an 18-foot skeleton, seen in Kubo and the Two Strings.

Right beside it, is an array of replacement faces, that the studio has used in it’s productions. It can be a little unnerving seeing them with no eyes, but the detail of the creations is definitely something to admire.

Upon entering the special exhibition gallery, I was a surprised by the amount of space, and how it was utilized.

In the past, I’ve seen exhibits related to topics such as Pixar Animation Studios, and Muppets creator Jim Henson. In those cases, the layout of the exhibits seemed to lead guests on a ‘journey.’ It was like being in a maze, guiding the viewer through twists and turns, and leading them to an eventual ‘conclusion.’

With Animating Life, such a layout did not seem to exist, almost like the studio and the museum, were coaxing guests to create their own path within the exhibit space.

Much like the darkened curtains that often segment off different work-areas at Laika Studios, much of the exhibit is cloaked in black cloth and in low-light, allowing the eye to drift to lit areas, showcasing various items from the studio.

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The Coraline Garden set, from 2009 feature film.

The mood lighting also contributes to highlighting the centerpiece of the exhibition: the massive ‘Coraline Garden’ set (see above), illuminated with all sorts of plants, and other items from the film’s nighttime sequence.

There are also little ‘pockets’ of props and scenes from the studio’s films, from the Babcock family’s home in Paranorman, to the lavish ballroom seen in The Boxtrolls.

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3D-printed pieces and color/texture-mapping, used to simulate Archibald Snatcher’s ‘cheese allergy’ scene, from The Boxtrolls.

In various areas, there are displays also dedicated to the miniature wardrobe of the film, the design process of what goes into creating the puppets, as well as what goes into creating effects-work within the films.

The section regarding the studio’s work with effects was definitely intriguing. There are some things on-screen that look like they just used computers to make some transformations. However, it was nice to see them show how the studio went the extra-mile, to 3D-print out things like Archibald Snatcher’s allergic reaction in Boxtrolls (see left), or Aggie’s emotional torment in Paranorman.

While there are pieces from each of Laika’s films, it feels like Kubo and the Two Strings gets the most attention regarding the various items on display. This could also be not only because it was the studio’s most recent film, but also because their craftsmanship and technology, took some major leaps during the production.

One area I was disappointed in while viewing the exhibit, was in regards to the film’s conceptual artwork. Exhibits like these make me excited to see original props and pre-production artwork on display, but for the majority of such pieces here, the studio had opted to only showcase reproductions of their artwork.

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Recreation of a test-animation set-up, to work on character animation.

Along with the main gallery, there are a few other areas in the museum, dedicated to the exhibit.

Part of the Asian Art gallery was converted into a makeshift theater for the exhibition. Several videos are run on a loop, showcasing the people who work at the studio, and showing what working for Laika entails.

There is also a small area off to the right of the main gallery, that houses a ‘hot set’ recreation (see upper-right). The little set-up, is meant to show how the animators prepare to ‘find the character’ they will be working on for a production. I’m sure some people were surprised to realize the kind of planning that goes into bringing a character to life.

The museum’s gift shop can also be exited through near the rear of the exhibit. While Laika doesn’t have the kind of merchandising reach that Disney does, there were still products such as Coraline handbags, exclusive T-shirts, and even a limited-edition poster by Mondo Posters, chronicling characters and situations from all of their films.

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As of this posting, the exhibit is in it’s final days, and will be closing on May 20th, 2018.

While I wish there had been a lot more to see regarding Laika’s productions, I still give the studio and the Portland Art Museum props for putting on this 6-month exhibition, and getting me to make my first visit to Oregon.

It’s definitely worth a trip to see the miniatures and props from the studio’s films, let alone understanding that this isn’t just ‘claymation,’ but a much deeper, and in-depth artistry that goes into bringing the studio’s films to life.