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3D DIRECT • August 11, 2001

Eternal Truth of the Week

The Play's the Thing

by Swami Rendsanotsa

This summer saw an influx of movies with obscenely spectacular effects. Animated actors who looked more life like than certain famous actors were expected to take over the silver screen, and special effects wizards were expected to rewrite history.

So what happened?

Hollywood continues to ignore a prime importance of making a movie. The movie must be backed up by a great story. Well, at least a fairly bearable story.

Let's look at two films in particular—Shrek (2001) and Final Fantasy (2001). In all honesty, except for the faces, Final Fantasy looks better. But Shrek had a far better story. Sure, it lacked complexity and much in the way of originality. But the story could be followed, and it acknowledged the fact that it was a fusion of tales everyone knows. The screenwriters had their tongues so firmly implanted in their cheeks that they risked hurting themselves. That is why Shrek spent almost three months in the box office top 10.

Final Fantasy only lasted three weeks in the top 10. It even had a story. Really it did. I think. It was a Japanese story simplified for American audiences. Why the studios haven't figured out that Americans can handle deep stories I don't know. As in the case of Final Fantasy, simplifying stories usually leads to an incomprehensible mess.

I could ignore the fact that after building up the female hero, the world was saved by a man; sending a message to my feminist friends that the moviemaker thinks women under stress are weak. I could ignore the creation of a fictional set of mythical beliefs and then slapping a known deity on those beliefs. (See Dogma [1999], The Gods Must be Crazy [1980], Keeping the Faith [2000], or Sophie's Choice [1982] to understand how to meld religion and a good story.) I could not excuse the inane and predictable dialog someone made fine virtual actors say while watching the characters finish fighting a war I didn't understand.

While most writers will tell you that a story should be started with the action going—a good exception is Harper (1966)—that doesn't mean plot should be ignored. Here's a good way to judge: if a character seems to spend most of their time explaining why something is a plot point, what something means, or stating the obvious every few minutes; stop writing and start over. Keep revelations to a minimum, or everything appears to have the same level of importance.

In other words: show, don't tell.

Shrek started the story by placing the ogre in a situation the viewers knew he wouldn't like, thus forcing him to go on an adventure where he could grow. We knew he didn't like people because it was shown to us. We knew more about Princess Fiona from her attempts at finding the perfect pose on the bed than we ever really did about Final Fantasy's Grey. His reason for being in the movie seemed to be to save the girl. He didn't seem to have a history beyond Aki.

Sure, it's impossible to show everything. If you tried, you'd end up with a four hour Hamlet. Uh, well, you get the picture. But exposition should never carry the story.

When you work on your next animation, whether it's a 10-second clip of a bouncing cube or a two-hour feature film, pay attention to the story. If you're not a writer/animator/videographer wunderkind—and let's face it, few people are—find people to help you. You're the animator. Make it the best animation you can. But work with a writer, even if he's your brother Darryl. Read the script out loud, or act it out if you're story is about a bouncing cube. See if you can read it without wincing over the dialog (note: movies like The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) encourage wincing—your movie probably isn't like that). If you are comfortable with the script, go for it.

Even after everything I've said, don't worry about your story. If you worry, every line will start to sound clichéd. Just remember that a movie is more than pretty pictures.

The Swami has decided to save his money and avoid any "blockbuster."