Saturday, December 25, 2004

Film Pet Peeves

There are quite a few standard movie tricks that come about out of cheapness, sloppiness, or ignorance that truly bug me. They often are such that they cause me to completely drop out of the story being told. We all have these things i'm sure -- especially if you're involved in a field in which the story purports to take place. Some of us have to endure these things in practically any movie.

I'm a biologist by training, and much of what i do and have done involves the auditory and visual identification of wild critters. Because of that i have a keen interest in critters that appear onscreen -- whether real, intended to be real, or intended to be flights of fancy. The problem for me has to do with hearing or seeing something that has no place in the story -- that stops me dead in my tracks. Few movies do it right. The most common error is one made simply of convenience -- we hear the birds of the area singing in the background of a film made on location. When that location is different than the location of the story a disconnect happens. For instance, in one of my favorite films of all time, Rob Roy, the story perfectly handles the highlands of Scotland such that i am totally immersed in the film. Until, that is, Rob ventures into the castle courtyard of the Duke of Argyll. Then, in the background, is tha jawing a Blue Jays and the cooed song of a Mourning Dove, two birds found only in North America. Luckily the film draws me back into the highlands proper after that.

Well, that's my number one pet peeve in the movies. Originally thinking i might become some sort of biological consultant to the film industry i began collecting all the examples i could find (and thousands of recordings of my own). I called these Biospoilers, and have devoted a separate essay to them, and another here, as well as appending a Biospoilers section to any of my reviews for film which i found to have errors, or occasionally did something very right in which i offered my commendations.

But there are other things that bug me as well. So here are some more of those Film Pet Peeves (some of these compiled from a previous blog post):

a) Non-motivated light: The type that makes me most nauseous is that phantom light that spotlights the actors in a car being driven at night. I'd much rather hardly see them with maybe some green dim glow from the meters, than have them bathed in perfectly placed light -- especially for the shotgun rider.

b) Fake labels on cans: This was brought to mind by a scene from The Business of Fancydancing where for the most part just the right tone is set with some incredible set-dressing. Then suddenly we see Mouse making a "bathroom-cleaner sandwich." The problem is the can has a green construction paper wrap on it that looks like, well, a last-minute green construction paper wrap. It takes someone no time at all to create a computer mockup of a label that will prevent rights difficulties -- so why not do it. It is the single major false note in an otherwise beautiful movie.

c) Overuse of/fake handheld camerawork: It seems rather odd doesn't it that in order to get a handheld camera effect folks don't just, voila, hand hold the camera. Instead you get this fluid head camera motion that all too often is so repetitive, cyclical and rhythmic that it creates motion sickness -- i assume it's computer driven, and perhaps is programmed to be random. But it doesn't look handheld -- it looks fake. And i think that's because the computer system has exact frame movement limits. Hands don't have those. Handheld by itself can be overused, but add it to that faux motorized effect and it simply overwhelms -- an example? -- the otherwise outstanding The Bourne Supremacy.

d) CG or overlaid fire effects. Now i suppose someone has managed at some time to do fire well. If so, then i was fooled all right. The issue is, if it's really possible to do it right, why is it done so poorly so often. It's obvious isn't it that fire and explosions are often done with CG because of the potential for injury and damage, and i imagine it's both very expensive and requires lots of paperwork and safeguards. Yet, with the state of CG today you'd think that someone would really become good at this. Instead we get major issues of two types that make most (if not all?) CG fire effects look truly ridiculous. The two issues are ones of density, and ones of scale.

Fire is a bit quirky and random to completely fabricate, so most effects are done with photo overlays, sometimes enhanced (this was done in Jarhead, where they came closer to, but not quite, right). Unfortunately, whoever is doing this uses single flames, photographed and then apparently doesn't consider scale, or is too cheap to match the necessary scale. And single flames are almost always too thin to look like real flames would in nearly any circumstance. So i'm waiting for someone to come up with perfect fire, while much appreciating those directors/ producers who understand it can't be done and make the effort to use the real thing to make it look right.

e) You'd think that someone who would go to great financial expense and extremes of expertise to creat certain CG effects, would know to do it with all the effects, lest we get hodge-podges of perfectly wrought animals mixed with ludicrous crap a la The Chronicles of Narnia.

Set up for a sequel


Bad dialects

Blatant foreshadowing

Fake handheld camera

Fake camera jarring

CG birds and butterflies

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