There’s this one thing about Invisibilia that really bothers me

NPR’s hit podcast Invisibilia about the “invisible forces that control human nature” has just completed its third season. The self-professed “concept album” of seven episodes released over four weeks dealt a lot with constructivist ideas. Do emotions, does reality just happen to us or do we make them first? While not as good as season 2, which seemed more politically relevant to me, season 3 again delivered some aha moments that got me thinking. It also repeated something it has been doing since the beginning, which I find both terribly annoying and journalistically questionable.

Invisibilia belongs to the school of storytelling podcasts made popular by This American Life. It strings together interviews and sound documents with explanatory narration to inform you about a topic and tell a compelling story a the same time. Different shows have different sonic profiles to support the storytelling, especially in their use of music and sound design. Radiolab, for example, often “visualises” (for lack of a better word) microscopic processes with synthesized sounds, making it easier to follow the explanation. Invisibilia‘s signature technique is to represent thoughts and feelings through single sentences from interviews and weave them into the narration whenever they become relevant again, like flashback images in a movie.

The sonic flashback

For example, the first episode of season three, Emotions, Part One, tells the story of a man, Tommy, traumatised by an accident he was involved in. The man recounts how he got out of his truck and approached the car he collided with. The driver is unconscious, the passenger, Miss Jones, is dazed. Tommy says: “Miss Jones says something about ‘the other child’ and I say ‘what other child’? That’s when I see Michaela’s arm, hanging there.” This is the original recording, but the phrase uttered by Tommy that describes the trauma is repeated throughout the episode as a shorthand for the whole image. For example:

Alix Spiegel: The day after the accident, after a tortured night in a motel room, Tommy’s trucking company put him on a plane to go home. He got in his seat, fastened his seatbelt. Would you like something to drink, sir?
Tommy: Her little arm, hanging out of the car.

I personally don’t like this “sonic flashback” technique. I find it clumsy and I just don’t like listening to it, but there is nothing badly wrong with it. It does, however, speak to the liberty Invisibilia takes with their recorded interviews, using phrases like these to illustrate thoughts and placing them in contexts where they were not originally uttered.

Unwarranted confirmation

The show does the same with other, shorter phrases, and there, I find, it crosses a line of good journalism. It is customary in the storytelling format to summarise longer interview bits that contain explanations a bit too long for the format. You will normally hear the first few sentences of the explanation, and then the narrator will take over and summarise the rest. Radiolab or This American Life often even fade down the original tape and lets it play in the background, while the narration talks over it, saying something like: “John explains, that …”.

But Invisibilia goes one step further. It will summarise a bit of tape and then it will insert a sound bite that confirms the summary, something I want to call “unwarranted confirmation”. Take this example from the final episode, “True You”:

Mindy: And so in life he became polite and reserved and embarrassed, …
Lulu Miller: This is his wife, Mindy, …
Mindy: … I mean that in a good way.
Lulu Miller: … who says that wile Chad is six foot five, he will always try to appear smaller.
Mindy: Whenever we’re in a crowd, like, when we’re at a concert, he’s trying to get out of the way.
Chad: Yeah.
(…)
Lulu Miller: And then one day, in his mid-thirties, a very different side of him appeared.
Chad: Yes.

Both the “Yeah” and the “Yes” are spliced into the narration from contexts we as listeners don’t know about. Chad was probably not interviewed at the same time as Mindy, but the producers see it necessary to insert his confirmation of Mindy’s statement about concerts by splicing in a “Yeah”. Well, maybe they asked him afterwards if the story was true and he actually did say “Yeah” and corroborated it.

Intransparent and condescending

The second example is worse. “One day, a very different side of him appeared” is not a statement that needs affirmation or denial. It is simply a justified assertion, an observation made by the storyteller. Why does Chad need to say “Yes” afterwards? It sounds like the producers are getting his blessing for what they just said, even though 1) what they said does not need a blessing and 2) we don’t know what context the blessing comes from. It could be any “Yes” from hours of tape. We have no idea what it originally pertained to.

Invisibila will do this all the time. They insert “Yes”, “Yeah”, “No”, “That’s right”, “Uh-huh” and other short phrases into their narration to confirm their own statements in a way that’s both non-transparent and often unnecessary. It’s like a sonic tic the show has been cultivating since its very first episode. And while it seems to be something Alix Spiegel, Hanna Rosin and their producers employ to shape the show’s profile, it’s also journalistically questionable and condescending in exactly the way NPR is often accused of being, degrading interview subjects to deliver sound bites for the self-aggrandisement of a manipulative storyteller.

Do you agree?

Quotes of Quotes (XXVI) – Markus and McFeely on “Agent Carter” within the MCU

How much of the bigger Marvel Universe are you weaving in?

[Screenwriter/Co-Creator Christopher] McFeely: We can’t help but weave in the Marvel Universe. We’ve been at this for a few years now. All of our reference points are within the universe. We need a scientist character. We didn’t go very far to come up with Anton Vanko, just as a very small part scientist character. If you know what he is, or what he goes on to be, that’s interesting. If not, he’s the Russian scientist.

[Screenwriter/Co-Creator Stephen] Markus: Also, working in the past where you already know the future — obviously, we saw ninety-something old Peggy — there are references being made, whether you do them on purpose or not. We know Hydra eventually took over S.H.I.E.L.D. When somebody says something hopeful about the future in Agent Carter, that is going to be tinged with the fact we know the future didn’t work out that well. There are plenty of little indicators of the future going forward, and the legacy of both the S.S.R. and Howard’s technology that will have ramifications later.

It’s almost like the M. Night Shyamalan curse, though. Viewers always expect some crazy twist in his movies. With Marvel, people anticipate all these tie-ins to other projects.

McFeely: I suppose it has the red box on the front. It’s a Marvel project, so they are going to expect something. But we’ve really tried to make the best show, about an interesting character in a world where there are some glowing objects and where a superhero has died.

Markus: We are also slightly freed up from that interconnection by the period. On “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Captain America and Iron Man and everybody are running around in that same world and same time period. They could theoretically show up at the door. There’s nobody around during “Agent Carter.” You can’t have an end-of-the-credits tag where Nick Fury shows up and talks to Peggy. He hasn’t been conceived yet. We’re a little cocooned.
– from an Interview at Comicbookresources.com

(vgl.)

Quotes of Quotes (XXV)

You start out imitating your heroes, and the way you fuck up becomes your style.
– attributed to Elvis Costello by Too Many Cooks creator Chris Kelly in “Entertainment Weekly

I have heard tons of supposedly inspiring quotes about “finding your voice” for writers and other creatives, but this is the most brilliant way anyone has ever put it. I could, however, not verify if Costello is really the source. Take it as apocryphal.

65daysofstatic’s Paul Wolinski about Science Fiction, Nostalgia and “No Man’s Sky”

Paul Wolinski explicitly told me he likes doing interviews. After our twenty minutes of sitting together in a dressing room, he walked me back to the backstage area of their show in Wiesbaden and I asked him a question I didn’t think of while my recorder was running. Does he actually think it’s a good thing for a musician to think too much about the music they’re making? I liked his answer. He said it’s really not a good idea to do it while you are writing the music, but it’s quite healthy to reflect on what you did after the fact, which is why he likes giving interviews.

It’s probably also why 65daysoftsatic’s interviews are always worth reading or listening to. For an instrumental band, Paul and his co-founding bandmate Joe Shrewsbury have a lot of interesting things to say, and they talk about their music and the dozen or so years of their career with disarming honesty. Of the two, Paul is probably the McCartney to Shrewsbury’s Lennon, if you really want to search for these dichotomies in every band. Where Joe, somewhat reluctantly it seems, takes a scowling center stage at 65daysofstatic’s shows, Paul is the quietly smiling guy with no beard and less unruly hair on his left, bent over a keyboard and apparently really sinking into the music.

I wanted to interview Paul ever since I bought his solo record “Labyrinths” in 2011, a synthesizer-infused trip through 1980s video games, 1970s science fiction movies and their respective scores. When 65daysofstatic released a new soundtrack to the science fiction classic Silent Running a year later, I wanted to interview him even more. There was a throughline I sensed about the music he was involved with, and I wanted to quiz him about it, especially after I saw what he likes to read.

If you have never heard 65daysofstatic’s music, you probably should give it a spin before (or while) reading the interview. The albums of the Sheffielders sound quite different from each other, but they all share an impressive melange of post rock guitar dramatics, powerful syncopated drumbeats and glitchy electronic fiddlings that is hard to put into any one box. They released a free, career-spanning mixtape called “The Last Dance” on SoundCloud in 2012, which is a good place to start.

What is it that interests you about science fiction?

Well, to begin with, I suppose, when I was a teenager, I used to love reading all kinds of sci-fi books and I think it was just about the pure escapism, really, and the geeky side of me. And I really loved the cyberpunky stuff, people like Neal Stephenson. Bruce Sterling, I was a big fan of. Just that kind of tech, Blade Runner sort of sci-fi. I never really got into Star Trek or anything like that. But the dark stuff, I really enjoyed it. These days, I don’t know. I tried to step away from it in my twenties, because I had this sort of weird … not that it was a guilty pleasure, but I started reading Naomi Klein and people like that and thought: fuck, I need to learn what’s going on in the real world. So I put all that aside for a while and stopped reading it and following it in the same way that I did as a teenager for quite a long time. It’s only in the past few years where I’ve just kind of allowed myself to enjoy it. I think it’s really interesting these days how the reality has overtaken what sci-fi used to be good at.

People like William Gibson have said that they don’t write sci-fi anymore.

Yeah, and Bruce Sterling does these talks and these essays. I think he said something along the lines of “This is a better form for me now than trying to write novels. Deconstructing the present gives more of a clue of what I’m trying to get across than inventing any number of sci-fi worlds.”

I’ve always had the feeling that 65daysofstatic’s music also was about going into the future. Your first album, even in its title was about leaving something behind, “The Fall of Math”, and going to new places. Is that what you are trying to do?

Well, it was always about trying to find a new sound, I suppose, or be original. We’ve always been of the opinion that there’s already more than enough bands and more than enough music. You don’t really need any more. There’s more than you could hope to listen to in your lifetime. Excellent stuff. So, if you’re gonna be that self-indulgent to be in a band, if you’re driven to it anyway, then at the very least, you really need to try and do something useful. Try and be relevant to the world as you exist in it right now. Because there’s plenty of stuff covering the way it used to be, so you need to react to what’s really happening and try to articulate it. We always used to be like that. The last record we approached a little differently in one respect, just because as far a electronic music goes, it does feel like it’s plateaued a little bit, in terms of what’s possible. I just heard the new Aphex Twin album for the first time, today. It’s excellent, amazingly excellent, but it doesn’t sound new in the sense of it being unheard or unthought of music. If you listened to Aphex Twin twenty years ago, it was like nothing that had ever come before it, it was incredible, but it’s getting harder and harder to recreate that in music, I think. I sort of don’t think you can anymore.

You’ve used a science fiction metaphor for that as well, once. You said that, in the solar system, you can still find lots of places where you haven’t been, but you know where everything is.

Yeah, it’s one thing to have mapped a place, but it’s a completely different thing to have fully explored it.

So is that what you were doing with your most recent record, “Wild Light”?

To a point. All of this deconstruction of it comes afterwards, to tell you the truth. We didn’t sit in a room and wrote charts about the ideas behind the record, we just sort of made it and then worked out what we were doing afterwards. In hindsight, even when we did [2010 album] “We Were Exploding Anyway” – in our heads, it was this thing that could be proper pop music in the way that The Prodigy are pop music or The Cure are pop music, but still interesting and different and us. We pushed that as hard as we could and I really stand by that record, I’m proud of it, but it didn’t turn out like that at all. It was still pretty obscure. Maybe not for us, but relative to what we were aiming for. I think it opened with a song that starts in 17/8 or something, it’s crazy. But there was this striving to push forward, somehow, that was the agenda of that record. With “Wild Light”, we didn’t have that. It wasn’t about being lazy at all, it was just more about trying to be really good. Following the songs, whatever they happened to be. Don’t worry if it was something that we had done before or an idea that was a bit predictable in some ways. It was more about almost daring to not hide behind this sort of complexity, but strip everything back to the basics. We didn’t care, if it sounded original. Whatever that word meant, we just wrote until we felt it was good.

In general, this year, you found yourself at the other end of the spectrum, you looked back ten years to your first record and played it as a whole. And also, I think, with your solo record you channeled a lot of people that have been there before you. How do you feel about that? If you’re usually someone who tries to find new places to go and now you’re looking back, going to old places and revisiting them.

For the solo record, it was no masterplan that I was doing. It was just a bunch of material that I had started writing during the “Exploding” process, but that didn’t fit with 65. I just allowed myself to have some fun, I suppose, and not worry if things sounded a bit cheesy or generic in one way or another. I put it together and quite liked it. I have a hard time listening to it now. I find it hard to imagine that it was the kind of stuff I wanted to write. Not that I dislike it, I just find it hard to match me now with me then. I don’t know why. But it was cool and I’m glad I did it. 65 was always more important, but it was nice to do the sci-fi thing, because Caspar Newbolt, who has been the 65 artist for four or five years now, maybe a bit longer – he shares a lot of the same sci-fi landmarks and moments in time that I do. He had a spectrum computer when he was a kid and had all the sci-fi books with the brilliant covers that were evoked in the artwork. The Polinski record was the only thing I made where the artwork was finished before the music, so that actually influenced it. This wasn’t really your question, though.

Nevermind. It’s interesting.

So, that was just a little bracketed thing and it was cool. Doing the “Fall of Math” stuff was very different, because it feels like such a long time ago for us and we still play a lot of those songs live anyway, regularly, every night. And the ones that we don’t play fell away from the live show for a reason, because they didn’t translate as live songs very well. We were a little bit ambivalent about the anniversary thing for a long time. Monotreme records wanted to use it as a reason to finally put out a vinyl, which we thought was a really nice idea, because who doesn’t like vinyl? At some point the anniversary shows were suggested and we were a bit reluctant to do them.

Because you don’t want to be part of a heritage music industry?

That’s one reason. We certainly didn’t want it to seem like we have reached a stage where we do these looking back shows. I still absolutely think that “Wild Light” is our strongest material and we still feel like we ought to be an ongoing concern. Even if that’s not the truth, it’s what we’re aiming for. But biggest of all was: we’re so proud of our live show and everything we’ve done over the past decade has made us learn how significantly different the two disciplines are – writing/recording and then performing. Different songs work in different ways and by the time we go to “Wild Light”, we were developing our songs in parallel, we’d have the album version and we’d have the live version and they wouldn’t necessarily be the same, but they played to the strengths of the form. That’s what it’s all about. Use the form you have chosen, find what’s essential in it and concentrate on that. Having done all of that with “Wild Light” and being so pleased with the results, with the record and the live show – to then have to go back and think about the best way to perform songs that we wrote ten years ago and force them into the live template was a bit strange. Part of us wanted to rework them entirely, but that would have gone against the point of doing it in the first place, because it wouldn’t have sounded like doing the record then. We would have ripped them to shreds. So there were lots of conversations of that nature. Eventually we took the gamble, because Monotreme thought it was a good idea and our management thought it was a good idea.

Did you enjoy it in the end?

Yes, in the end. I don’t think it’s as strong as our normal live show, I have to say that. And we did insist on doing two sets, “The Fall of Math” and then the second full set, which we mostly just played “Wild Light” stuff on. Hopefully to show people, who were big fans of “The Fall of Math” but haven’t necessarily been paying attention to what we’ve been doing since, reminding them that we’ve got all this new stuff too. It was good, the crowd made us realize that we probably think too hard about these things sometimes and that it’s okay, every now and then, to just sort of pause and celebrate a thing that meant a lot to a bunch of people. That was really nice. Even the songs that we never play live anymore – they were weird. Certainly on stage it felt very disjointed to be playing them in that particular order, but it clearly worked, as far as the show went.

If you’re doing two sets like that, you’re also marrying something old to something new in a way … like you did with Silent Running. (we both chuckle at my lame attempt to create a segue) Is that comparable in any way?

Maybe as a metaphor. The processes couldn’t be further apart. I think we do that anyway in our normal show, which flows a lot better, because you can mix and match. I’ve never actually gone to a show, where a band plays a whole record.

I don’t like them, really, because I like to be surprised.

Yeah, exactly. But clearly people do, so, you know …

But do you think we are ever going to see a version of Silent Running with the music? It’s just been released on Blu-ray, so that would have been an opportunity.

No. Recently, we weren’t even allowed to do a live show. There was a really cool venue in England, which would have been perfect to do it. They wanted us to do it. And Universal or maybe it wasn’t even Universal but somebody with the Power said: Actually, no, it’s getting re-released on Blu-ray soon, so it would be inappropriate to have it showing with some other soundtrack. Back when we first did it, we somehow found the e-mail of director Douglas Trumbull and e-mailed him to let him know we’re doing it.

Sound’s great. Because he’s a real geek as well, right?

I think so, yeah. And we got a reply, which was amazing. The reply basically said: “Go for it. That sounds great. I’ve got no control over anything that happens with that film.”

It’s a shame.

Yeah. On the scale of the movie industry, we’re just completely anonymous. They wouldn’t make any money by reissuing Silent Running with our soundtrack.

Are you still involved with the video game “No Man’s Sky”? Can you tell me anything about that?

I cannot. (he grins) I can tell you that they did this trailer, about a year ago now, for some big games conferences and they used “Debutante” and then they used “PX3” for another trailer. It just exploded in the games world and it’s really exciting to be associated with that on that basic level.

Did that register with you at all? Did people actually buy some music?

I don’t know if they bought the music. I don’t think many people do that anymore, but there is a regular stream of people on Twitter or Facebook constantly going “Thanks to Hello Games for introducing me to 65daysofstatic, these guys are great”. That’s trickling in. And it’s really good to be associated with that as a thing, because it’s not a world I follow particularly closely, but everything I’ve seen about that game – as soon as they contacted us about using the music for the trailer, they sent some screenshots through. I went: Ah, that looks like those sci-fi book covers I read as a teenager, and everything I’ve heard them talk about is that they don’t just want to do another shooting game. It’s all about exploring the universe. So I said: Okay. That sounds like something that’s nice for 65 to be associated with.

Thanks a lot for taking the time.


65daysoftsatic’s latest album is called “Wild Light” and was released last year. Buy it here or check out the single “Prisms“. Monotreme Records re-released their 2004 debut “The Fall of Math” in early 2014. It’s also still available. Paul occasionally blogs on his website.

Quotes of Quotes (XXIV) – Glenn Kenny on the Film Criticism Landscape

But in terms of the film critic landscape, it’s just weird that these people get into these arguments. There’s all this weird drama. Like, people are talking about being afraid to say bad things about “Boyhood?” Who the fuck is afraid to say bad things about “Boyhood?” Who gives a shit? People say, “We need a culture that embraces dissent.” It’s not dissent! Dissent is… (impersonates old Russian Grandmother) “Dissent is when you’re living in Soviet Russia and you’re put under house arrest!” Big fucking deal, you have a different opinion. We don’t have to embrace different opinions, it’s called arguing. It’s what we do. “Oh, poor me, I’m the only person who didn’t like ‘Boyhood.’” Just get the fuck off the cross, man, we need the wood.
– Glenn Kenny, Film Critic, interviewed by Greg Cwik for “Criticwire“,
probably inspired by Kenneth Turan

“3D is finished” says Ben Stassen, director of 3D film The House of Magic

I saved one interview from my prolonged stint at the Stuttgart International Festival of Animated Film last month, because it was interesting enough to merit a solo spot and because the film it concerns hits movie theatres in Germany this week.

Ben Stassen, the Belgian co-director of The House of Magic (German: Das magische Haus), is a veteran when it comes to 3D-animated films (which is probably why he has perfected the pose seen in the image above). He started his career – and his company nWave Pictures – in the early nineties and created theme park shorts for several years, before he decided to ride the digital 3D boom of the late noughties with his films Fly me to the moon and Sammy’s Adventures. He’s a strong figure in Europudding land and very confident in his opinions about the industry, which – as you will see – can sometimes lead to him descending into rambling about it for a while.

The House of Magic, his newest film, is actually quite good. It uses 3D in a very knowing way and takes you for an entertaining 90-minute ride that you won’t regret if you’re into that kind of stuff. In the interview, Stassen talks about the inspiration behind The House of Magic, the challenge of competing with Hollywood and the uncertain future of 3D.

You’ve done quite a few 3D-animated films in the past, what’s the new ground that you’re exploring with this one?

With the first three Films, Fly me to the Moon, Sammy’s Adventures: The Secret Passage and Sammy’s Adventures: Escape from Paradise, it was much more about an immersive experience, going to space and under water. I think that one of the most important things about 3D is that it gives you that physical immersion that you don’t have in a 2D film. You might have an intellectual and emotional immersion, but you can’t have a physical immersion.We wanted to continue that with this film, but I also wanted to explore the more gimmicky side of 3D, because the story lent itself.

“I wanted to explore the
more gimmicky side of 3D”

By gimmicky, I mean in-your-face effects. The other films had a few in-your-face effects, but this film is about a bunch of characters – animals and automatons – that fight to prevent a house from being sold. All the visitors that come to buy the house and the movers and all these people that want to get rid of the house, the characters want to stop them. They stop them by using all kinds of things, so it was a really nice setup to do in-your-face effects that were part of the story, not just gimmicky, gratuitous and meaningless. I wanted to explore that and that’s one of the things that we did here and hopefully it works well and is well-integrated into the movie.

Did you approach it in this way? Did you say “What kind of story could we find, where people throw things around a lot?”

No, actually it was the other way around. I was looking for a film to do after Sammy. You must know that in animation, there are very few writers that write scripts on spec, meaning: you write them and then try to sell them. In live action, thousands of scripts are being written, in animation: almost none. Because there are no buyers. All the big studios do their own thing and the small independents like ourselves, we do try find them, but people don’t spend energy writing the scripts. So, I was looking for a film to do. And 15 years ago, we had done a theme park attraction – because that’s still a big part of our business. I’ve done a lot of IMAX films but also short, what we call 4D-films for theme parks. 15 years ago we did a film called Haunted House about an abandoned cat that was looking for a place to stay. And that film had been so succesful worldwide, I decided to take that twelve-minute-film and expand it to a full feature-length story. So, we had already tested the concept of doing a film like that with a lot of immersive and in-your-face effects in a theme park environment. The big difference is that when you do a feature film, you need to build a story. You need to build up the characters, it’s not just about sensations, but also about emotions. But that was the starting point.

© StudioCanal

You are maybe the most well-known European figure who kind of stands against Hollywood’s dominance in computer-animated film. Do you see yourself that way?

It’s true that we have been trying to be in the major league with the quality of our films, the quality of the animation, and thanks to our affiliation with Studio Canal we’ve had reasonable budgets to do a film. By “reasonable budgets” I mean 20 to 25 million Euros, which compared to the US is about 20 percent of their budget, so we’re still not in the same league in terms of budget, but we’re trying to be, in terms of the quality of the films. Now, the challenge is that it is extremely difficult to get US distribution. So yes, we are a little bit perceived as the people that are able to do films that get distributed worldwide. Fly me to the Moon was distributed in theatres, I think this one might get theatrical distribution, we’re negotiating right now. But the Sammy-Films went directly to DVD in the US and that’s quite frustrating.

“The US makes it very hard
for independents to succeed”

It’s quite a frustrating thing, because the US dominate the market and basically make it very very hard for independent animation companies or animated films from outside the US to succeed, not only in the US but also in the rest of the world. In the 1980s, 1990s, the majors released two or three films a year. Now there is ten or twelve films coming from the majors – DreamWorks, Pixar, Blue Sky, Universal – and so they block all the good windows. A window is a good period to release a family film, like Christmas or Easter vacation. And you only have five or six good windows for animated films and they’re all completely blocked by the US majors who have way more money and way more marketing power than other animation studios, so it is very challenging and very frustrating in a way. It’s hard to make the business model work. For us, it does work, because we have that combination of making feature films that succeed quite well and get sold worldwide, from all the territories in Europe to China to South America. But from the feature films we also make shorter films that we exploit in theme parks and that can make the business model work. That is why we are one of the few companies in europe that cancompete with the Americans a little bit, because we have these other sources of revenue. Otherwise, it would be almost impossible.

Ignoring the business side for a moment, how do you think the European animated film is doing from an artistic standpoint at the moment?

The great thing that has evolved over the last few years is that the technology – I don’t want to bring everything back to money, but it has become much more affordable. So, ten years ago, from a creative standpoint, the Americans had a big lead, because they had big research and development teams and could create tools that enabled them to do more refined, better-looking animation. Now that has become off-the-shelf software, and we do have a small R&D team internally. So, now at least we have the same tools as the Americans. I think that, from a creative standpoint, our films start to look really really good, even though we don’t have the same budget and we are being considered like being part of the major league in terms of the look of our films.

“You cannot only appeal
to a local market”

One of the strengths of the US film industry in general has always been that they develop stories that have worldwide appeal. And when you do a computer-animated film on a certain level, you do have to pay a lot of attention to them. You cannot deal with a local subject that would only appeal to a local market. You need to broaden that up, so the commercial side of doing animation still has a big impact on the creative side. Probably far more than in live action. In live action, you can make small, independent films that are great and sometimes even succeed internationally. In animated films, it’s different, because it’s family entertainment. You have to please the parents, the kids and you need to be really as broad as possible, which means more americanised. When you look at all the animated European films that have succeeded worldwide, they have all been more americanised, based on the model of the big US films, which is not the case with live action films. You can sometimes have really local stories that become huge successes worldwide. Animation is also the only field, where they always compare you to the Americans. If you make a film, the reviews and the audience, they compare you to Pixar and DreamWorks. If Luc Besson in France or a big German director makes an action film, they are not compared to the last Bruce Willis …

(I frown)

A little bit, but they look at it: Is it entertaining? Yes. For us, it starts from there. It starts from “How does it compare to …” In live action, it’s much less. So it is challenging, but, you know, it’s been fun. It’s worked. So far.

© StudioCanal

You’re also one of the pioneers of 3D, of course, not only because of your theme park background. The way I see it, at the moment is that it gets tacked on to every summer blockbuster, whether it works or not – and then you have movies like Gravity last year, where it’s really put to the test and audiences like it. So, where do you see 3D going in the future, in maybe the next five to ten years?

It’s going nowhere. 3D, I’m afraid to say, is going to die. Because you have one Gravity, which is absolutely fantastic, for a hundred other films. 99,9 Percent of the films coming out of Hollywood are not 3D. They are, at best, 2.5 D; 2.25 D. The evolution is such that, as we speak today, there is not a single US film shooting in 3D. We started by converting them from 2D to 3D, then a few films were shot in 3D, and now they’re all converted again, because 3D does not work. Well, 3D works fantastically well in films like Gravity and I think we pay a lot of attention to 3D in our films, but most people don’t. Even great films like the Pixar films. I heard an interview with a Pixar director, saying he doesn’t handle the 3D, it’s done in post-production. Not converted – they do render both eyes, but if it’s not part of the storytelling then why do 3D?

“3D is finished
in two or three years”

Audiences have come to realize that. They don’t want to pay extra money anymore to see 3D. The kids don’t want to wear glasses. You can see it in a film like The House of Magic, which has already been released in a few territories: the little kids don’t mind wearing 3D glasses, if they have a sense that it makes a difference. So I’m extremely frustrated, because I truly believe that 3D as we know it today is going to be finished within two or three years. Not ten years, two or three years. Even countries like Italy – The House of Magic came out only in 2D in Italy, even though I spent a lot of time and energy making it in 3D. Why? Because they decided that family films will not be released in 3D anymore. Only the tentpole Hollywood films, because people don’t want to pay. The future of 3D will be in high frame rate. So far there’s only two films that have been in released in HFR-3D. The Hobbit 1 and The Hobbit 2 by Peter Jackson. The next one will be Avatar. Peter Jackson did it at 48 frames per second, and Avatar will have 60 frames per second.
© StudioCanal
It’s quite technical, but at a high frame rate you have absolute freedom to do anything you want. At 24 frames per second, you are so limited – and that’s why a lot of filmmakers don’t want to deal with 3D. You cannot do fast lateral movements, you have to be very careful in anything you do, so that it doesn’t strobe and stays watchable. In HFR – and I’ve seen The Hobbit at 24 frames 3D and in HFR – it’s a different film. The 48-frame-version is fantastic. And the 24-frame-version has been re-converged so that people don’t get sick during the projection. So I think that in the future, the current form of 3D will probably die and there will be a few, much fewer 3D films, but films that are truly designed for 3D. And there will not be three per weekend, but maybe ten per year. Films like The Hobbit, Avatar and hopefully a few animated films and hopefully ours will be among them. I think that’s where were going, because why do we even have 3D? One reason: Hollywood was unable to convince theatrical exhibitors to go digital. They didn’t want to spend the money. And at one point they decided to say: We’re going to do 3D, because you need a digital projector to do 3D. Avatar was really the milestone. The most digitisation of movie theatres around the world happened with the release of Avatar and then it grew from there. So now Hollywood doesn’t care whether 3D stays or not.

“Hollywood doesn’t care
if 3D stays or not”

The interesting thing is that HFR-3D, which I see as the future of 3D, is what the studios are going to use, on a different scale, to convince exhibitors to install 4K projectors. Because 4k projectors can do native HFR, with the existing projectors you need to spend too much money on the projector to make it possible. Not every theatre is going to be equipped with 4K projectors, but a multiplex of 20 theatres may have one or two 4K projectors. And again, the argument ist: go HFR and you get The Hobbit in 3D. To me the biggest milestone in 3D cinema from Hollywood was The Hobbit 1, because it was the first one to do that. We did it in the 90s already with Showscan and 60 frames per second, but that was for a theme park specialty market. The Hobbit was the first one to do it for the multiplex and I think that’s the future.

Thank you for your time.

Das magische Haus startet in Deutschland am 22. Mai im Kino. Ein bisschen mehr zum Film und anderen Familienfilm-Highlights auf dem ITFS habe ich für das Kinderfilmblog aufgeschrieben.

Full Talk: The Operational Aesthetic of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe

This is the full text of the talk I gave at the SAS Symposium “Adaptation: Animation, Comics and Literature“. To get the whole experience, call up the Prezi presentation (pictured above) and hit the next slide whenever there’s the word SLIDE in the text (as if you couldn’t tell).

I’m here to talk about the Operational Aesthetic of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, so let’s get to it. (SLIDE)

First: Just a quick reitaration what the Marvel Cinematic Universe actually is. (SLIDE) It’s of course mostly a series of feature films that have come out since 2008. (SLIDE) and that share a narrative continuity, what you might call a Universe. (SLIDE)

But there’s also a series of short films, called “One Shots” (SLIDE) that explore smaller nooks and crannies of the universe and link them together. These short films are distributed as DVD extras. (SLIDE)

There is also, at the moment, one TV series, called “Agents of SHIELD”, airing on ABC (SLIDE), but four more are planned for distribution via Netflix, starting in 2016. (SLIDE)

Finally, there’s a number of tie-in comics, both digital and analog, that close narrative gaps and explore character Backgrounds. (SLIDE)

What’s important to note is that every one of these elements, every film, every series, every comic tells a self-contained story. But there are overarching narrative throughlines that connect them, like the rise and fall of SHIELD, the secret spy organization that plays a role in almost every one of them. (SLIDE) Now, Shared Universes are nothing new, of course. (SLIDE)

Crossovers have a rich tradition in literature, especially in serialized fiction narratives like the pulp novels that started becoming popular in the late 19th century. (SLIDE) A shared universe has also been a cornerstone of Marvel Comics’ success. (SLIDE) Starting with “Marvel Mystery Comics #7” in 1940, characters would start to share stories. (SLIDE) Superhero teams like “The Avengers” with a changing roster of members became regular comic series in the sixties. (SLIDE) And starting with “Secret Wars” in 1984, special comics would bring the whole universe together for big crossover events. (SLIDE)

Through the course of Marvel’s corporate history, these crossovers have become a valuable tool to, effectively, get readers to buy more comic books – if you want to participate in the momentous events, you have to buy them all. (SLIDE) Today, as you can tell by this screenshot from Marvel’s website, they are a regular thing. (SLIDE)

Now, as the last point notes, there is an obvious leaning of framing this principle simply in terms of business practice. If you cross over narratives you steer readers towards another serialized narrative and you hope to reap the synergy. You also strengthen the corporate brand, the umbrella over all other brands. Your customers consume more, but they stay inside the system that you provide for them.

But there is another component to these shared universe narratives and I personally believe it’s also a significant reason why they work so well. (SLIDE) Now, Television scholar Jason Mittell calls this the “Operational Aesthetic”. What he names “Complex Television”, he says (SLIDE)

“offers another mode of attractions: the narrative special effect. […] These moments of spectacle push the operational aesthetic to the foreground, calling attention to the constructed nature of the narration and asking us to marvel at how the writers pulled it off; […] we watch the process of narration as a machine rather than engaging in its diegesis.”

(SLIDE) Following Mittell, you could picture the operational aesthetic sort of Rube-Goldberg machine, where it’s simply a lot of fun to see all the elements work together to achieve an effect of awe. (SLIDE) I personally prefer to follow this guy, John “Hannibal” Smith, from the “A-Team”. Does anyone remember his catchphrase? That’s right: “I love it, when a plan comes together”.

Right. So let’s explore some of the opportunities and limitations that a shared universe – with its operational aesthetic – has. (SLIDE) Now, all these apply to comics as well as films. I will just use examples from the films, because I know them much better. (SLIDE)

A shared universe allows you to use the operational aesthetic for references to other parts of the universe with an audience that feels “in the know”, in what I call “Easter Eggs and Callbacks”. (SLIDE)

So, you can allude to things yet to come. This is most prominently done by adding so-called “stingers” to the films after the credits. The first one after Iron Man, pictured here, famously had Samuel L. Jackson saying: “You have become part of a bigger universe”, explicitly stating the mission of the studio. (SLIDE)

But you can also call back to things that already happened. In this scene in Thor: The Dark World, Thor’s brother Loki turns into Captain America with an inside joke that is only understandable to viewers who know The Avengers. (SLIDE)

Secondly, there is the aspect of coherence. An audience can explore different corners of the same universe and their investment is rewarded by narrative links that allow for a sense of recognition. I could quote Henry Jenkins here, but I’ve decided against it.

Now, the commitment to a coherent universe and lasting characters allows for an exploration of plot “holes” and “What if”-Scenarios. (SLIDE) For example: at the end of Thor the Bifrost, a magical bridge that allows the citizens of Asgard to travel to other worlds, is destroyed. At the beginning of Thor: The Dark World it is whole again and the film doesn’t explain why. He doesn’t have to, because the story is explained in one of the comics leading up to the film. (SLIDE)

And since one of the favourite pastimes of geeks around the globe seems to be to pit their heroes against each other to see which one would win in a fight, a shared universe allows for these things to actually happen and canonically answer “What if”-questions like “What happens, if Thor’s hammer” hits Captain America’s shield”? (SLIDE)

These are the opportunities (SLIDE), but of course, there are also downsides. “Limitations and Pitfalls”. (SLIDE) For one thing, having a coherent universe, means that even slight narrative incoherences risk destroying the whole operational aesthetic. Extra care needs to be taken that all odds and ends are tied up. There are two mechanics that come into play here.

One is the act of retroactively explaining inconsistencies away, what is called “Retroactive Continuity” or “Retcon”. For example, there was a stinger at the end of The Incredible Hulk in which Tony Stark meets General Ross and tells him, that he’s “putting a team together”. The filmmakers later decided that it wouldn’t actually be Stark who puts the Avengers together and produced a whole short film that explained, that SHIELD sent Stark to see Ross as a decoy to distract from their actual plan. (SLIDE)

The second mechanic is simply one of convention. After The Avengers, viewers had to simply accept that the individual members of the team would continue to have solo adventures for which the other Avengers will not be available to help them. (SLIDE)

There is also the limitation that the individual narratives have to stay self-contained because, audiences might not have seen all other instalments. So you have to provide some exposition every time. There are, of course, clever ways to do this (SLIDE). In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers relives his own history, which is the plot of the first film, by visiting an exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. (SLIDE)

Finally, you have to take care that you don’t overuse the operational aesthetic and rely to heavily on it to avoid the so-called “Small Universe Syndrome”, where a reference to everyone else in the universe pops up at every corner. At this point, you both alienate casual viewers, who are not deep into the mythology, and you lessen the impact of the operational aesthetic’s mechanics.

This means: A succesful operational aesthetic allows for longterm, earned narrative payoffs of previously established coherences. Too much narrative entanglement ultimately leads to narrative cul-de-sacs and a need to “reboot” the universe. (SLIDE) This has actually happened several times in comics history. DC Comics famously destroyed its whole universe at the end of the 80s to be able to start fresh. (SLIDE)

Since this conference is dealing with adaptation, let’s finally deal with the way these more or less established principles of serialized fiction present a challenge in the world of movies. Here, you are not only dealing with writers, artists and characters that have to be shared, but also with large financial risks, large logistical undertakings, huge crews of people and possibly the egos of the people embodying the characters.

So how did Marvel pull it off anyway? (SLIDE) The first thing they did was to secure longterm funding. In 2005, the newly-founded Marvel Studios secured $525 Million dollars of Credit from Merrill Lynch to produce ten films over eight years. This financial independence allowed them to plan ahead in a way that they could not have, if they were just licensing their characters out to other studios, like they did with Spider-Man. (SLIDE)

They also signed long-term contracts with actors that commited them to as many as 9 films for a fixed wage. In this way they kept the overhead costs for the films stable. (SLIDE) There is tight creative supervision and control through central figures like Studio President Kevin Feige and writer/director/producer Joss Whedon. They basically play the same role a so-called “showrunner” would play in a television series, keeping the individual parts of the universe in line with the overall vision. (SLIDE)

Finally, as Derek Johnson has noted, Marvel Studios used a lot of good self-marketing and so succeded to create a positive industry narrative for themselves. An “origin myth”, as Salon puts it here. (SLIDE)

So, these are the components that made it possible. However, I believe that the fact that it is quite a bit harder to create a shared universe in the world of feature films, actually strengthens the operational aesthetic. Viewers that are aware of narrative machinations, probably also have a faint idea of the complicated logistics involved in producing films like these. (SLIDE)

Now, can I prove this? The short answer is no. In my further research (SLIDE), I want to explore factors of social pychology that might figure into, for example, theories of consonance. (SLIDE)

However, there’s the evidence of the side of the creators that suggests that an operational aesthetics figures into what they are doing, beyond monetary considerations. The filmmakers often grew up with comics and loved the mechanics there. (SLIDE)

Joe Russo, one of the directors of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, recently said in an interview that he “gets off” on the fact that his film is connected to the others. (SLIDE)

Clark Gregg, the star of the SHIELD T.V. series even joked that viewers who can’t wait for the longterm payoffs to affect them are “losers”. (SLIDE)

Marvel has also started leaning heavily on the connectedness of the universe in their marketing, airing a TV special called “Assembling a Universe” and suggesting the hashtag #itsallconnected for people tweeting about “Agents of SHIELD”. (SLIDE)

Finally, other studios have started to imitate the Marvel model. I guess we can safely say that their main motivation is to make money. (SLIDE) However, there is not a lot of justification for a film like the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past, which connects the films from the early 2000s with the more recent Prequel First Class – beyond a general feeling of “Wouldn’t it be cool, if we joined these universes together”. (SLIDE) So to summarize all this on a most basic level, I conclude (SLIDE)

The construction of a shared universe across feature films, a tv series and accompanying texts creates an operational aesthetic, where the shared universe exists both as a narrative challenge of adapting serialized comic book mechanics to the screen and as an exploration of the gratifying nature of a complex but coherent narrative construct and the commitment of the company to keep it coherent.

I hope this all made some sort of sense to you and I (SLIDE) Thank you for listening.

Thank you so much to Hannes Rall and Susanne Marschall for accepting my proposal and letting me talk at their event. Thanks also goes out to all those helping me with my ongoing research, especially Jochen Ecke, Janina Wildfeuer, Sascha Brittner, Martin Skopal, Bernd Zywietz, Andreas Rauscher and, of course, Katharina.