Sunday, April 13, 2008

Geography (and the Power of The Unseen Threat)

Geography is an important but rarely used device that is the key to making any action sequence work. No action sequence will have any real tension to it unless we know exactly where everything is at all times: where the hero is in relation to his objective, how close or far away he is from his goal, what obstacles are at play and where they are in relation to the hero in the scene.

Most film makers don't bother to figure this out, because it's difficult and time-consuming, and requires a lot of forethought, so usually action sequences are just a frenetic and confusing pyrotechnical fest that ends when the loud music stops. In a well-done sequence, we know what the hero is trying to do, and we always know how far along he is in his goal of obtaining his goal, and the sequence is over when we see him clearly get what he wanted or when he is definitively denied what he wanted.

When film makers try to add something to their action scenes that is fresh or new, they usually only aim for adding elements that we haven't seen before, like more interesting explosions or more violent weapons.

When a really masterful film maker creates a great action sequence, he or she usually treats the sequence like it's own little three act story within the larger story of the movie: with a clear beginning (act one), progressive complications that make the scene build (act two), and then a satisfying climax that wraps up all of the loose threads and brings the scene to a conclusive end (act three). Also, after a good action sequence, we know exactly how the scene has advanced the story and how the world of the story has been altered by the sequence: is the hero now clearer to his ultimate goal, or further away? In a poorly constructed movie, nothing is altered by the action sequence, and it was just there to add some noise and flash, to wake up the audience between the boring and/or confusing talky parts.

Nobody is better than Spielberg at geography. If you just look at any sequence from Raiders, you will see how well they are all plotted out, how you always know where everything is, what elements are in play and how close or far away Indy is from getting his goal.

Think about the sequence where Indy and Marion are trying to commandeer the Nazi plane. There are so many elements in the sequence that affect how it turns out, and they are all added very clearly and always one at a time (which is very important, but again, very rare) to build a nice progression and keep raising the tension at a constant rate, and always we are oriented to where we are, what the dangers are to our heroes and and where they are coming from.

The sequence has a good example of one of a really cool film trick that can only be pulled off if the audience has a clear understanding of where everything is located. I don't know what to call it other than the unseen threat.

As Indy first approaches the plane, we see clearly how everything is laid out (Indy's goal here is to subdue the pilot and commander the plane). The plane has two spinning propellers at the rear and Indy starts to climb up between the propellers to sneak up on the pilot but he's spotted and confronted by a mechanic with a wrench. As Indy climbs down off the plane and begins to fight this mechanic, the propellers are always visible. Indy and the mechanic are always seen fighting in the area that's between the two massive spinning propellers.

Indy is able to destroy the wrench that the guy is holding by forcing it into the propeller. This is a great setup of the destructiveness of the propeller (call this Act One of the propeller's story).

So after Indy is able to overcome the first mechanic guy, he is approached and confronted by a second guy (this is the big muscle-bound guy). The propeller is offscreen for just a moment as Indy as the guy have their verbal exchange, and then we see it again as they begin their fight (again, we see clearly that they are sparring on the ground in the area between the two propellers).

So now as the big guy punches Indy, Indy falls to the ground, and we cut closer, then out one more time as the pilot gets into the fray, pulling out a gun.

Okay, so here's where all the setup of the propeller will come to fruition: as we cut closer to see the guy pick up Indy, and then to a different close shot as Indy bites the guy, we are still very aware of the propeller that's offscreen to the left. So after Indy bites the guy, the guy hurls Indy away from him and to the left.

This is where all the payoff of the constantly spinning propellers comes to a great payoff: as the big guy throws Indy off to the left, your heart skips a beat because, as a viewer, you know that propeller is there, and you know how dangerous it is (we saw it chop up a big steel wrench already) and yet we can't see it in this shot. It's offscreen, spinning dangerously, we know, and yet we can't see it, which makes us very anxious on a subconscious level as Indy hurtles in that direction. So the combined knowledge we have that it's there and the fact that we know Indy's heading right toward it makes us jump because we can't tell if he's about to collide with the propeller and get chewed into bits.

As the pan continues, it is revealed that in fact he was behind the blades of the propeller and he's okay. This is the Act Two of the propeller story, and again, a great setup that heightens the tension of the spinning propeller, builds the threat of it and adds to the emotion we feel when the big guy is eventually taken out by the propeller himself (this is Act Three and the end of the propeller story).

I know many of you will think I'm over-analyzing this sequence and think that this is an accidental occurrence that isn't intended to accomplish what I'm saying it does. All I can tell you is that a good film maker never leaves things up to chance and that in a well-made film every shot is staged and presented in a certain way to achieve a definite goal. Every time I've watched this sequence my heart skips a beat at this point and the reason why, I'm certain, is exactly because of what I've described above. I've seen George Lucas use this trick too, and I'm sure Spielberg has used it in other films as well, so I can tell you it's not accidental, it's intentional.

And this is why I disagree with those that responded to my post below by saying that they felt all three Indy films are comparable, because the first one is an amazingly meticulous piece of visual narrative. The visual story telling in "Raiders" is so inventive, so daring and so carefully planned that any student of film should watch it and analyze the way it's constructed. There's just no way you can say that about the other two films. They may have their strengths, but they are not nearly as perfectly crafted on a visual level.

The action set pieces in "Raiders" may seem outlandish but they always seem comparatively "natural"; they seem believable within the world of the film and they always seem to flow organically out of the narrative and build in a way that seems plausible...this, in itself, in film, is no small feat. When you think of some of the action set pieces in "Temple of Doom", you have to admit that sequences like the fight on top of the rock-crushing conveyer belt, the Mine Chase and the showdown on the suspension bridge at the end seem like contrived show pieces set on a Hollywood Soundstage and not like they could really happen in the real world. That's fine, there's nothing inherently wrong with that, but I'm never going to be on the edge of my seat when the action doesn't feel natural or "real" on some level, and I just know how much harder it is to write and present things that seem "real" and tangible that I'm always going to prefer that kind of film making. I suppose it comes down to a personal taste issue in the end.

And for those who say "ah, 'Raiders' is no great piece of art, it's exactly like those old Hollywood serials, they're just mindless fun", again, I have to say I disagree, because "Raiders" is a very sophisticated piece of finely crafted visual storytelling, and those old serials can't hold a candle to the film making in "Raiders"...very few movies ever made can.

Personally, I think "Raiders" marked about the time in Spielberg's career where he abandoned the careful way he presented his storytelling and started to get a little sloppy. I just can't think of anything in the other Indiana Jones movies that can hold a candle to the way things were done in the first film, which is why I hold it in much higher regard than the others, and why I am nervous about the prospect of a fourth one.

I was disheartened to see how few people actually responded to the real issue I was trying to address in my last post - the way a character must see and relate to the world around him - and how many people just argued with me about whether the next one will be any good. The only reason I used "Indy 4" as a starting point was because I had just seen the trailer in the theater and it sparked the discussion in my head. Surely there are better examples of that particular topic, but I wasn't overly concerned with the perfect example, the topic is more important than the illustration to me. Obviously, I don't know if "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" will be good - I sure hope so - but that's not really the point I was trying to make, and talking about whether a film is "good" or "bad" is always an exercise in futility because taste is always personal and subjective.

I don't suppose this post will fare much better than the last one did, but hopefully what I've said about geography will spark something with some readers and it will help them to see film in a different way. As a storyboard artist it's really an essential part of making any action sequence have any kind of tension to it, and definitely an interesting aspect of film to study and see how it's been handled by great film directors through the years.


algal said...

I think what you've been pointing out it obviously real and very well-observed on your part. My favorite posts here have been the ones where you analyze the subtle choices that have made popcorn movies like Indian Jones or Star Wars into classics.

This kind of film criticism is also quite rare, probably because most educated people look down on light entertainment so they assume it requires less craft. Also, lots of artists have no feel for story, and lots of writers have no feel for visuals, so it's a difficult area.

Keep it up. It's fascinating!

Don Ford said...

I appreciate your analysis on this. This is certainly why some movies feel more real. Action needs to be linked to the real world; it needs to have a place and a direction. In many movies we are left somewhat confused about where, why and how some fight or chase happened. The film maker indeed relies upon rushing us through the action and so completely filling our eyes with special effects that we don't notice the flaws until later. In a way this was the difference between the exact placement in BC comic strips and something like Mary Worth where they just filled in all the blank spaces with people or machines or furniture or plants or all of the above. In BC he had to place everything exactly to tell the story.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you that Raiders is so much better than the other two. I just watched it again for the first time in years a couple of months ago. I was afraid it wouldn't hold up like many of my other fond childhood movies haven't, but was pleasantly surprised. As I was watching it, I became more and more amazed at how well made it is.

A friend and I have talked a couple of times about how somewhere along the line Spielberg became more of a great scene maker than a movie maker. Several of his films feel uneven because the scenes inside the greater context of the whole movie seem too obvious and preachy (either in message or visuals or both), but set on their own are very powerful.

THE SIR, James Suhr said...

this is a great post. i'll think i'll return to this one often to help me when lost. this was awesome!

Anonymous said...

Spielberg's downfall was frankly when he got to the point where he directed the writers on his films. Kasdan wrote a script for Lucas; Spielberg(coming off some disappointments that had sharpened his need for a hit)was the director--not the uber-producer/creator/head screenwriter he later became by default of his success.
Spielberg did a superb job, and he added loads of things only he could to Raiders, no question-but it wasn't all him.
By the time of Temple of Doom, you just know there were umpteen meetings where Steven was telling a writer(or two, or three or four)that he wanted this sequence and that sequence in the film(to "top himself"), and to write Indyesque one liners around them. It shows.

Dave said...

I just finished reading these last two posts. I'm super glad some people are still paying attention to story on this level - It makes all the difference in the world, that's for sure.

Dan said...

As a student I really can't see all the stuff you point out in these posts. I was pretty surprised at the amount of arguing your last post sparked as well. When I read your posts I take them for what they are, another opinion. I wouldn't argue them, though I'm not experienced enough to know any better any ways ;)

Anyway I enjoy your analytical posts on live action films, and I hope post like this more often

Anonymous said...

One of my teacher's used a scene in Kill Bill where Thurman is fighting the lady with the wrecking ball, showing this rare moment in film where the 180 rule is broken, but Tarentino got away with it because of the way he stationed objects in front of the camera to hide that that another good example?

Sallah said...

I agree with you re: the greatness of Raiders, particularly in its direction, but I also feel that Temple of Doom is marvelously-directed, as well. Yeah, there are some continuity cheats (to say the least) in the rock-grinder and bridge sequences, but I'm not sure that there's even one shot where the camera is somewhere it isn't supposed to be.

Jon McNally said...

Love to read posts like this one, Mark. Stuffed with tasty observations.

Can I return a moment to discussion of the Crystal Skull trailer?

I just finished watching the Skull trailer, then the old theatrical trailer for Raiders. It seems to me the two are delivering rather different messages and herein lies at least part of our discomfort with the Skull trailer.

The Raiders trailer's based entirely on plot. "Doesn't this sound like a great story? Don't you want to see more?"

Yes, please!

The Skull trailer clearly communicates, "Ha! Look how old and goofy Indy (H Ford) is! Funny, huh?"

Um ... Not really.

No wonder, then, that we're uncomfortable with the trailer. They're digging in the wrong place.

Graham Ross said...

Great post. Raiders is really a classic piece of filmmaking and shouldn't be shunned as typical Hollywood schlock. THe whole thing is amazing and should be watched as many times as possible!

Scott Sackett said...

I really appreciate your insight on this. The problem is films are a mass medium and the seer bulk produced garantees that most of this will go right over the viewers heads.

As a comic book artist, I appreciate when the well done film bits are pointed out to me. For all their differences, comics and film share a lot of 'language'.

We KNOW we love "Raiders", its valuable to figure out WHY we love "Raiders"!

Simon Stahl said...

Thanks for the great analysis! It's always tough for me to notice these things - I get so caught up in the story and action of the movie I forget to watch the filmmaking ;)

Anonymous said...

Great article, but in the DVD making-of it is mentioned that all the details of this particular scene were improvised, not carefully planned out. Reference:

So I guess what this means is basically, that Spielberg is even fantastic when doing things on the spot :-)

- James

vinimation said...

Your points on unseen threat are very interesting. I'd always thought of the unseen threat as something like Sauron in the Lord of The Rings, being much more powerful because you never actually see him, but quite an inspiring post !

dany boom said...

"The other moment that really bugs me is when he falls back into the cab of the truck behind him, says "that looked closer" while both he and his enemies look on, dumbfounded, before he regains his composure and punches the person next to him."

i could accept the way he swung backwards and into the truck. maybe. but then that ridiculous pause, and the stupid line, while the two bad guys gape at him. and then he hits them one at a time in that corny way ?

very very disheartening. and worth repeating - the fall didnt stretch credibility as much as the phoney baloney quip. thats called pandering, and it made me quite not at all curious about the film.

great posts.


Alexis Fajardo said...

Great post! As a comic book creator and fan, I often see geography "misused" in action sequences on the page, leaving the reader confused and mired in a whole bunch of splash pages. Raiders is definitely a great piece of movie-making, specifically because of those action sequences that propel the story forward (a rarity these days). I think Ridley Scott is another director who crafts mini-stories in his action sequences and does it just as well as Spielberg did in Raiders.

E. Will said...

I am a wannabe comic book/storyboard artist and I'm always trying to learn more about the art of filmmaking (in addition to drawing). I just wanted to say that I adore your blog. Thank you SO much for sharing all this helpful information. Have you thought about putting together a book on this stuff?

mark kennedy said...

Thanks for all of the comments!

algal - yes, that's a good point...I like popcorn movies when they're well done, but a lot of people just dismiss them out of hand, which is a shame. Okay, I'll try to write more on the topic sometime...

don ford - yes, very good point.

anon - yes, sadly, our childhood favorites don't always age so well. Raiders is definitely an exception. good point about Spielberg's evolution. A friend was just commenting to me the other day about how all of his films are so watchable, even the weakest of his efforts.

james - glad you liked it, thanks for leaving the comment!

anon - yeah, I'd never really heard that, but that makes a lot of sense. A lot of times when directors have too much success they don't listen to the people around them and their films can suffer for it.

dave - great, glad you enjoyed the post.

dan - I am glad you liked it. I will try to write more soon.

hey anon - that sounds interesting, I don't know that specific example, but that is another great topic for discussion.

sallah - I would say that all of Speilberg's films are probably well-directed in their own right; some are just (much) better films than others.

jon - yes, exactly! There's such a huge difference between the two things.

graham - yes, agreed!

scott -yes, true, we are really saturated with so many films released all the time; the good ones can get lost so easily.

simon - ha, yes, I do too, actually! Try watching a movie with the sound off, that can help.

James - well, there's improvised and then there's "improvised". I'm not sure how accurate the wikipedia article is, but even if they didn't plan it by storyboarding it, I am sure they carefully thought it out and blocked the scene before they shot it.

vinimation - glad you liked it...there are many varieties of "the unseen threat", maybe I should have come up with a better name.

dany - yeah, I know....well, we'll just have to see.

alexis - yes, that's true, Scott is a very interesting film maker as well, definitely worth studying too.

e.will - glad you like the blog, good luck with everything! I would love to write a book but that's a lot easier said than done, apparently. Someday.

Anonymous said...

You've got to check out the DVD, Mark. The action was really made up on the spot :-)

- James

Ninja Dodo said...

Personally I have to say Crusade was always my favourite because of the interaction between Indy and his dad but I can appreciate how Raiders may be a better film. The Temple of Doom I never cared too much for.

Still, great analysis.

Vishu said...

I've been reading your blog for quite some time now (bout 8 months)....I've learnt so much from you and your analysis.... and i've even tried (not completely sucessful) to use some of the stuff u've talked about in my films. I just completed work on an animation short- it wld be an honor if you cld take a look see at it and tell me what you can find it on my blogspot

More power to you!!

jodi said...

wow--thatsa lot of comments. Too bad you don't post more, lol.

I'd like to buy a fishing license please, it's almost Tuesday, and there's a lake near my house.

That's what I like about screenwriting/storyboarding/writing. How everything works together to form a greater whole.

Thanks for the connected posts. It's a great explanation of world-building and logic.

Matt J said...

Hey Mark-some good quotes from Spielberg here on 'action seq. geography' in the Indy films

The Mighty Adam said...

Hello Mark,

Thanks for yet another great post! For a long time I've been interested in storyboarding and this sort of thorough analysis is really helpful to me.

I've spent lots of time watching and pausing DVDs in order to learn a bit from them. I've read plenty of books and have tried a few boards drawn from unproduced scripts I've found online.

My problem is this: I can watch a scene like the one above and know why each shot is effective and why each element on screen is where it is. I can see how good shots will convey exactly where each character/thing is in relation to one another. But I can never go the opposite direction. I have so much trouble starting with words and putting them into sequential pictures that are even half as coherent. I'd be very interested in reading a post or comment by you (or anyone else!) that kind of breaks down the process, rather than breaking down the finished product.

I know you're hugely busy, but I thought I might put a bug in your ear, so to speak. Maybe if you're ever short on ideas for a blog post in the future...

Thanks again!

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