Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Zootopia

Land of the giants

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Zootopia and Captain America: Civil War

Earlier this morning, I found myself thinking about two of my favorite movie scenes of the year. One is the sequence in Zootopia in which Judy Hopps chases a thief into the neighborhood of Little Rodentia, where she suddenly seems gigantic by comparison, tiptoeing gingerly past buildings the size of dollhouses. The other is the epic fight between the superheroes in Captain America: Civil War, in which Ant-Man reverses his usual shrinking power to transform himself into Giant Man. Both are standout moments in very good movies, and they have a lot in common. In each one, a normally meek and physically vulnerable character is abruptly blown up to gargantuan proportions, a situation that offers up more natural comedy than if it had involved a more conventional hero. (It’s a lot of fun to see Hank Pym treating the rest of the Avengers as his personal action figures, when it wouldn’t mean much of anything to see a giant Hulk.) Both are bright daytime scenes that allow us to scrutinize every detail of their huge central figure, which is logically satisfying in a way that a movie like the Godzilla remake isn’t: the latter is so weirdly loyal to the notion that you shouldn’t show the monster that it keeps cutting away nervously even when Godzilla ought to be the biggest thing in sight.

Most of all, of course, these scenes play with scale in ways that remind us of how satisfying that basic trick can be. A contrast in scale, properly handled, can be delightful, and it’s even more instructive to see it here, in a pair of mainstream studio movies, than it might be in more refined contexts. As the architect Christopher Alexander writes in The Nature of Order:

The first thing I noticed, when I began to study objects which have life, was that they all contain different scales. In my new language, I would now say that the centers these objects are made of tend to have a beautiful range of sizes, and that these sizes exist at a series of well-marked levels, with definite jumps between them. In short, there are big centers, middle-sized centers, small centers, and very small centers…[Scale] provides a way in which one center can be helped in its intensity by other smaller centers.

It might seem like a leap from the harmonious gradation of scale that Alexander is describing here and the goofy appearance of Giant Man, but both draw on the same underlying fact, which is that contrasts of size provide a standard of measurement. When Giant Man shows up, it feels like we’re seeing him and the rest of the Avengers for the first time.

King Kong and Citizen Kane

The movies have always taken pleasure in toying with our sense of proportion: there’s a reason why a new version of King Kong seems to pop up every few decades. If film is naturally drawn to massive contrasts of scale, it’s in part because it’s so good at it. It’s hard to imagine another medium that could pull it off so well, aside from our own imaginations, and movies like The Thief of Baghdad have reveled in bringing the giants and ogres of folklore—who are like a small child’s impression of the adult world—to life. Every movie that we see in theaters becomes a confrontation with giants. When we watch Bogart and Bergman on the big screen in Casablanca, their faces are the size of billboards, and you could argue that we respond to giants in the movies because they force the other characters to experience what the rest of us feel in the auditorium. Hollywood has always seen itself as a land of giants, even if it’s populated by moral pygmies, as Gloria Swanson reminds us in Sunset Boulevard: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” And I’ve always been struck by the fact that the classic posters for King Kong and Citizen Kane are so similar, with the title character looming over smaller figures who stand terrified at the level of his ankles. Kane and Kong, whose names go together so well, are both monsters who came out of RKO Pictures, and perhaps it isn’t surprising that Orson Welles, like Brando, grew so large toward the end of his life.

The idea that a giant might symbolize the gigantic qualities of the work of art in which it appears isn’t a new one. In his great essay “Gravity’s Encyclopedia,” which I seem to think about all the time, the scholar Edward Mendelson lists what he calls “encyclopedic narratives”—The Divine Comedy, Gargantua and Patnagruel, Don Quixote, Faust, Moby-Dick, Ulysses, and Gravity’s Rainbow—and observes that they all have one thing in common:

All encyclopedias metastasize their monstrousness by including giants or gigantism: the giants who guard the pit of hell in Dante, the eponymous heroes of Rabelais, the windmills that Don Quixote takes for giants, the mighty men whom Faust sends into battle, Moby-Dick himself, the stylistic gigantism of Joyce’s “Cyclops,” and, in Gravity’s Rainbow, the titans under the earth and the angel over Lübeck whose eyes go “towering for miles.”

Your average blockbuster is even more gargantuan, in its way, than even a great novel, since it involves the collaboration of hundreds of artisans and the backing of an enormous corporation that can start to seem vaguely monstrous itself. Like most adult moviegoers, I hope that Hollywood gives us more intimate human stories, too. But we can also allow it a few giants.

Written by nevalalee

December 15, 2016 at 9:01 am

Moana and the two studios

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Concept art for Moana

If the history of animation had a portentous opening voiceover, it would probably say: “In the beginning was the storyboard.” The earliest animated cartoons were short and silent, so it made sense to plan them out as a series of rough thumbnail sketches. Even after they added sound and dialogue and became longer in length, the practice survived, which is why so many of the classic Disney movies are so episodic. They weren’t plotted on paper from beginning to end, but conceived as a sequence of set pieces, often with separate teams, and they were planned by artists who thought primarily with a pencil. This approach generated extraordinary visual achievements, but it could also result in movies, like Alice in Wonderland, that were brilliant in their individual components but failed to build to anything more. Later, in the eighties, Disney switched over to a production cycle that was closer to that of a live-action feature, with a traditional screenplay serving as the basis for future development. This led to more coherent stories, and it’s hard to imagine a film like Frozen being written in any other way. But another consequence was a retreat of visual imagination. When the eye no longer comes first, it’s harder for animators to create sequences that push against the boundaries of the medium. Over time, the movies start to look more or less the same, with similar character designs moving through beautifully rendered backgrounds that become ever more photorealistic for no particular reason.

The most heartening development in animation in recent years, which we’ve seen in Inside Out and Zootopia and now Moana, is the movement back toward a kind of animated feature that isn’t afraid to play with how it looks. Inside Out—which I think is the best movie Pixar has ever made—remains the gold standard, a film with a varied, anarchic style and amazing character design that still tells an emotionally effective story. Zootopia is more conventionally structured, but sequences like the chase through Little Rodentia are thrillingly aware of the possibilities of scale. Moana, in turn, may follow all the usual beats, but it’s also more episodic than usual, with self-contained sequences that seem to have been developed for their visual possibilities. I’m thinking, in particular, of the scenes with the pygmy Kakamora pirates and the encounter with Jermaine Clement’s giant coconut crab Tamatoa. You could lift these parts out and replace them with something else, and the rest of the story would be pretty much the same. For most movies, this would be a criticism, but there’s something about the episodic structure that allows animation to flourish, because each scene can be treated as a work of art in itself. Think, for instance, of Pinocchio, and how the plot wanders from Stromboli to Pleasure Island to Monstro almost at fancy. If it were made again today, the directors would probably get notes about how they should “establish” Monstro in the first act. But its dreamlike procession of wonders is what we remember the most fondly, and it’s exactly the quality that a conventional script would kill.     

Concept art for Moana

The fact that Disney and Pixar are rediscovering this sort of loose, shaggy energy is immensely promising, and I’m not entirely sure how it happened. (It doesn’t seem to be uniformly the case, either: Finding Dory was a lovely movie, but it was plotted to within an inch of its life.) Pinning down the cause becomes even tricker when we remember that all of these movies are in production at the same time. If so many storytelling tricks seem to recur—like the opening scene that shows the protagonist as a child, or the reveal in the third act that an apparently friendly character is really a bad guy—it’s probably because the same people were giving notes or actively engaged in multiple stories for years. Similarly, the move toward episodic structure may be less a conscious decision than the result of an atmosphere of experimentation that has started to permeate the studio. I’d love to think that it might be due to the influence through John Lasseter of Hayao Miyazaki, who thinks naturally in the language of dreams. The involvement of strong songwriters like Robert and Kristen Lopez and Lin-Manuel Miranda may also play a part: when you’ve got a great song at the heart of a scene, you’re more likely to think of visuals that rise to the level of the music. Another factor may be the rise of animators, like Moana producer Osnat Shurer, who came up through the ranks in the Pixar shorts, which are more willing to take stylistic risks. Put them all together with veteran directors like Ron Clements and John Musker, and you’ve got a recipe for self-contained scenes that push the envelope within a reliable formula.

But the strongest possibility of all, I think, is that we’re seeing what happens when the Pixar and Disney teams begin to work side by side. It’s been exactly ten years since Pixar was acquired by its parent company, which is just about the right amount of time for a cultural exchange to become consistently visible onscreen. The two divisions seem as if they’re trying to outdo each other, and the most obvious way is to come up with visually stunning sequences. This kind of competition will naturally manifest itself on the visual end: it’s hard for two teams of writers to keep an eye on each other, and any changes to the story won’t be visible until the whole thing is put together, while it’s likely that every animator has a good idea of what everybody else is doing. (Pixar headquarters itself was designed to encourage an organic exchange of ideas, and while it’s a long drive from Emeryville to Burbank, even that distance might be a good thing—it allows the divisions to compete on the basis of finished scenes, rather than works in progress.) It isn’t a foolproof method, and there will inevitably come a day when one studio or the other won’t overcome the crisis that seems to befall every animated feature halfway through production. But if you wanted to come up with a system that would give animators an incentive to innovate within the structure of a decent script, it’s hard to imagine a better one. You’ve got separate teams of animators trying to top each other, as they did on Alice, and a parent studio that has figured out how to make those episodes work as part of a story. That’s a great combination. And I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2016 at 9:13 am

The story whisperer

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Storyboard for Aladdin

If you really want to learn how a story works, you should try telling it to a three-year-old. Over the last twelve months, as my daughter has begun to watch longer movies, I’ve developed a sideline business as a sort of simultaneous interpreter: I’ll sit next to her and offer a running commentary on the action, designed to keep her from getting restless and to preemptively answer her questions. If it’s a movie I’ve seen before, like My Neighbor Totoro, I don’t need to concentrate quite as intently, but on the handful of occasions when I’ve watched a movie with her for the first time in theaters—as we’ve done with The Peanuts Movie, The Good Dinosaur, Kung Fu Panda 3, and Zootopia—I’ve had to pay closer attention. What I whisper in her ear usually boils down to a basic description of a character’s emotions or objectives, if it isn’t already clear from action or dialogue: “He’s sad.” “She’s worried about her friend.” “He wants to find his family.” And I’ve come to realize that this amounts to a kind of reverse engineering. If a movie often originates in the form of beat sheets or storyboards that the filmmakers have to turn into fully realized scenes, by breaking down the action in terms that my daughter can understand, I’m simply rewinding that process back to the beginning.

And it’s taught me some surprising lessons about storytelling. It reminds me a little of a piece that ran last year in The New York Times Magazine about Rasha Ajalyaqeen, a former interpreter for the United Nations. Like Ajalyaqeen, I’m listening to a story and translating it into a different language in real time, and many of the tips that she shares apply equally well here: “Be invisible.” “Leave your opinions behind; your voice should reflect the speaker’s feelings.” “Forget pausing to find the right word.” And most of all:

Word-for-word translation can result in a nonsensical mess. Instead, break longer, complicated phrases into shorter units of single concepts. “A good translator does not interpret words; he interprets meaning,” says Ajalyaqeen, who grew up in Syria. Be prepared to dive into sen­tences without knowing where they are going grammatically…”Sometimes you start and you don’t know what your subject is—you’re waiting for the verb.”

“Waiting for the verb” is as good a way as any to describe what I often have to do with my daughter: I’m not sure where the scene is going, but I have to sustain her interest until the real action kicks in.

Storyboard for Aladdin

This is a valuable exercise, because it forces me to engage with the story entirely in the present tense. I’ve spoken here before of how a story can best be understood as a sequence of objectives, which is the approach that David Mamet articulates so beautifully in On Directing Film, the best book on storytelling I’ve ever read. In practice, though, it’s easy to forget this. When you’re the writer, you find yourself thinking in terms of the story’s overall shape, and even if you’re just the reader or a member of the audience, you often skip ahead to anticipate what comes next. When you’re trying to explain it to a three-year-old, there isn’t time for any of this—your only goal is to explicate what is happening on the screen right now. After you’ve done this for a dozen or more movies, you start to appreciate how this approximates how we subconsciously experience all stories, no matter how sophisticated they might be. A good movie or novel doesn’t just put one scene after another, like a series of beads on a string, but that’s how we absorb it, and it needs to be told with clarity on that simple sequential level if its larger patterns are going to have any meaning. Like a properly constructed improvisation, an engaging story comes down to a series of “Yes, and…” statements. And the fact that it also needs to be more doesn’t excuse it from its basic obligation to be clear and logical with each individual beat.

And talking your way through through a movie like this—even if the three-year-old you’re addressing is an imaginary one—can lead to unexpected insights into a story’s strengths and weaknesses. I came away even more impressed by Zootopia because of how cleverly it grounds its complicated plot in a series of units that can be easily grasped: I don’t think Beatrix was ever lost for more than a few seconds. And when I watched Aladdin with her this morning, I became uncomfortably aware of the golden thread of fakery that runs through the center of that story: it’s a skillful script, but it hits its beats so emphatically that I was constantly aware of how it was manipulating us. (Compare this to Miyazaki’s great movies, from Kiki’s Delivery Service to Ponyo, which achieve their effects more subtly and mysteriously, while never being anything less than fascinating.) I’ve even found myself doing much the same thing when I’m watching a television show or reading a book on my own. When you try to see the story through a child’s eyes, and to frame it in terms that would hold the attention of a preschooler, you quickly learn that it isn’t a question of dumbing it down, but of raising it to an even greater level of sophistication, with the story conveyed with the clarity of a fairy tale. Anyone who thinks that this is easy has never tried to do it for real. And at every turn, you need to be asking yourself a toddler’s favorite question: “Why?”

Written by nevalalee

March 29, 2016 at 9:22 am

“This was the ending that had awaited him all along…”

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"Closing the door behind him..."

Note: This post is the forty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 47. You can read the previous installments here.

One of my favorite storytelling tricks is the false ending, in which the writer fools us into thinking that we’ve reached a satisfying conclusion, only to pause, regroup, and push forward into something even deeper. The great example here is The Usual Suspects. After listening to Verbal spin his convoluted tale for well over an hour, Detective Kujan turns the tables, bombarding Verbal with a version of events—aided by a barrage of flashbacks over a dramatic underscore—in which Dean Keaton was Keyser Soze all along. It’s a convincing performance, and if you went into the film knowing nothing except that it was supposed to have a famous twist, you might be forgiven for thinking that this was it, even if it wasn’t as good as you expected. Yet the sequence flies in the face of one of the few scraps of objective information that the audience has been given: the very first scene in the movie, in which Keaton dies. And if we temporarily forget this, it’s partially because ninety complicated minutes have unspooled in the meantime, but also because Kujan’s closing argument is assembled to look and sound like the end of the movie. It’s a perfectly decent flashback montage, of the sort that is often used to reveal the solution to a mystery, and we have no way of knowing that the movie is about five minutes away from using an even better montage to blow our minds for real. (The unsung hero here, as I never tire of saying, is editor and composer John Ottman, whose contributions elevate the movie beyond what was there in McQuarrie’s script and Singer’s direction.)

Which, when you think about it, is a surprisingly subtle point. It isn’t the logical consistency of the fake ending that fools us, but the way in which it mimics the visual, rhythmic, and aural conventions of the real endings to which we’re accustomed. We’re subconsciously attuned to how a movie feels as it draws toward its conclusion, and for a fake ending to work, it has to give us the full package, which is more important than whether or not it makes sense. And the absence of such cues can tip us off to the trick prematurely. Zootopia, for instance, has what would otherwise seem like an ingenious fake ending, but the movie rushes past it a little too quickly: if it were the real climax, we’d be savoring it, and the fact that the script treats it in an almost perfunctory way is a clue that we shouldn’t take it seriously. If a movie really wants to trick us, it has to edit that fake ending as if it were the real thing, and in particular, it has to pay close attention to the music, which often tells us what to feel. The score at the end of a movie usually swells to carry us out of the theater, and if many fake endings fail to convince, it’s because they’re too quiet. (I’m surprised at how rarely movies use our knowledge of scoring conventions against us. Movie music often prompts us to feel relieved—as when the score softly creeps in again after a long stretch of silence in which the heroine is exploring the deserted house—and I’d love it if a film gave us a few bars to release the tension, and then the jump scare.)

"This was the ending that had awaited him all along..."

The fact that movies almost never exploit a fake ending to its logical extent is hard to explain, especially because the medium lends itself so naturally to such a mislead. We know exactly how many pages remain in a book, and we generally have a pretty good idea of how long an episode of a television series will last. With a movie, unless we’re watching it at home and have carefully scrutinized the back of the video box beforehand, we don’t really know how much longer it has to go, and even if we can guess that it’s about two hours, twenty minutes in either direction gives it plenty of room to play with our expectations. (Douglas Hofstadter once jokingly proposed padding out novels with fake pages toward the end, to create the same kind of effect, and I sometimes experience this when a book ends, without my knowledge, with a preview of the next installment in the series.) But if the movies seem reluctant to push that kind of fakeout as far as it can go, it might be because the benefits are canceled out by unanticipated side effects. A really convincing fake ending would have the audience putting on its coats and preparing to exit the theater, only to be yanked back into the story, and that sort of manipulation can easily turn viewers against it. Fooling us into the physiological response created by a real ending might make it impossible for us to respond in that way when the movie actually ends. This might explain why the handful of movies that really sell a fake ending, like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or James Mangold’s Identity, time it so that it occurs only a few minutes, or seconds, before the real thing, compressing the two into one.

Chapter 47 of Eternal Empire occurs long before the ending of the book, but it includes a narrative fakeout that required me to take many of these issues into account. It’s the culmination of the subplot in which Ilya has been forced to assassinate Tarkovsky, and at the end of the chapter, he appears to do exactly that, shooting Tarkovsky in cold blood in the oligarch’s stateroom. Or at least that’s how it looks. Needless to say, there’s something else going on, and within the next couple of scenes, we’ll be let into the secret plan that has been unfolding in plain sight. When a valued reader gave me notes on the first draft, however, he said that he didn’t buy the scene as written—he knew, somehow, that Tarkovsky was still alive. When I went back to reread the relevant section, I saw my mistake: I had written it as if I knew what was coming. If Ilya had shot Tarkovsky for real, this would have been the tragic endpoint of the entire trilogy: the instant in which his true nature as a killer overtook his attempts to become something more, swept up by circumstances beyond his control. I would have lingered on this moment, which would have been one of the major climaxes of the whole series, and the existing version didn’t give it the attention that it deserved. In the revision, then, I slowed it down, putting in the equivalent of a dramatic orchestral sting to play over Tarkovsky’s apparent death, and I dwelled on it as if the entire book had been building to this passage. Which, in a sense, it had. (The rewrite also gave me my single favorite line in the novel, the description of the yacht as “a masterpiece of foresight and design surrounded on all sides by night.”) Does it work? I can’t say. But at least it has a chance…

Zootopia and the anthropomorphic principle

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Concept art for Zootopia

Note: Mild spoilers follow for Zootopia.

I enjoyed Zootopia one heck of a lot, but the most emphatic recommendation of all came from my daughter, who burst into tears as soon as the movie ended. And it wasn’t because something onscreen had upset her, or even because she was startled by the unstoppable Shakira track that blasts over the closing credits: she was sad because she loved it so much, and now it was over. In fact, she was inconsolable, to the point where I had to carry her into the lobby and reassure her that we would see it again soon. And I’m looking forward to it, as well as to the countless other viewings to follow, which will give us plenty to discuss when she gets older. I plan to talk to her at length about my favorite scene, the chase in Little Rodentia, and how its sudden shifts of scale remind me of animation’s visual possibilities—and how rarely they seem to be utilized. We’ll also dissect the cleverness of the screenplay, which offers up a neat false ending before burrowing deeper into the story’s implications. She can compare it to the Richard Scarry books she reads, and even to Robin Hood. And when she’s ready, I’ll gently point out that this is something like the fourth consecutive Disney movie in which a seemingly innocuous character turns out to be the real bad guy, which makes me think that this trope ought to be retired.

Above all else, we can talk about its message, which, as has been widely noted, is a timely one indeed. And it deserves a lot of credit for this. Most ordinary movies would have been content to settle for the moral that anyone can be anything, or that we should all be a little nicer to one another. A slightly more ambitious film might have reminded us that we shouldn’t judge based on appearances, and it might conceivably have even broached the subject of racial profiling. But Zootopia goes even further, into the implication that there are systems in this world that are set up to benefit—deliberately or otherwise—from institutionalized prejudice. It’s a heady lesson, even if it will mostly affect viewers who were already primed to receive it, like those who cringe a bit when Judy Hopps, a rabbit, praises Nick Wilde, a fox, for being so “articulate.” But you never know. And I think it’s true, as other commentators have pointed out, that the movie is able to go as far as it does because its parts are played by animals. The first trailer took pains to introduce audiences to the concept of anthropomorphism, but it’s an idea that we all intuitively understand, and it’s generally accepted that certain kinds of stories go down more easily when presented in animal form. It’s the reverse of the uncanny valley: we empathize with animals because our minds focus on the points we have in common, a tendency that has been utilized by moralists from Aesop to La Fontaine.

Concept art for Zootopia

But there’s an even more interesting point to be made here, which is that the anthropomorphism of Zootopia seems to have loosened up the filmmakers themselves. Since we find talking animals in everything from Kung Fu Panda to My Little Pony, it’s a little surprising to realize how rarely it’s been used in its purest form by Disney: Robin Hood is the only other movie from the classic canon—if we don’t count Chicken Little—to show animals interacting in a world without humans. And it’s worth asking why it resists exploiting such a powerful tool, especially because it appeals so much to children: it’s no accident that Robin Hood, which is far from the best movie the studio ever made, is the one that my daughter has watched the most. In part, it’s due to a residual anxiety over being seen as kid’s stuff, which still haunts the genre as a whole, but there’s also an element of caution at play. Walt Disney himself was oddly insistent on centering his movies on a boring human couple, with the animators reduced to creating a riot of energy in the supporting characters: it’s as if the Marx Brothers had built all their movies around Zeppo, or even Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle. It was a conservative choice made by a studio that embraced conventional values, and animals have always enabled exactly that anarchic vein in animation that Disney did his best to repress. (Disney buffs have long wondered why the studio repeatedly tried and failed to develop Chanticleer, an animal fable featuring none other than Reynard the Fox, and I suspect that we have our answer here.)

Something similar appears to have happened with Zootopia, even if it’s obviously the product of another place and time. Try to imagine this story being made with human characters, and you can’t: its anthropomorphism was a shield that protected it throughout what must have been a lengthy development process. I’m tempted to propose an anthropomorphic principle of fiction, in parallel to the anthropic principle that I’ve discussed here before, which states that a story that grounds itself in a nonhuman world is more likely to take meaningful risks with our human preconceptions. To borrow a concept from the movie’s own lexicon, it allows animators to follow their instincts. (I also can’t resist pointing out that both “animal” and “animation” emerge from the same root, which refers to nothing less than the soul.) And I have a feeling that this is where the real influence of Zootopia will be felt. A movie can’t change the world, unfortunately, but it can certainly change a studio, and I’m hopeful that Disney will continue to pursue the line of thinking it represents. It gives us a world rich enough to sustain multiple sequels, so here’s my pitch for the next one: a movie that raises the question of why everyone we meet here is a mammal, as if we couldn’t be expected to relate to anything with feathers or scales. That’s a form of prejudice, too—and if Zootopia itself teaches us anything, it’s that our assumptions are sometimes so large that they can’t even be seen.

Written by nevalalee

March 14, 2016 at 9:59 am

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