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Story Time: Live Action Big Movie Drama

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Written by: Herb Lash
Date: Feb 2002

BMZ columnist and reviewer explores the state of dramatic Big Movies.

  

Category: Columns

"I liked almost anybody that made you realize who in the devil was making the picture.” So said Howard Hawks, in an endorsement of personal filmmaking over generic, mass produced Hollywood films. Debating auteur theories of filmmaking is by now a tired sport – but somehow the Large Format filmmaking world has evolved almost untouched by the filmmaker who wants to say or do something new. The great majority of Big Movies, even the good ones, rival the standard Hollywood romantic comedy in terms of formulaic narratives. The “classic” LF film employs a handful of magisterial postcard shots, a lordly voice over, a thundering score and an aversion to anything but the most straightforward narrative. These films rely solely on the Giant Screen experience to carry the day – the majority of today’s LF films may differ in subject choice, but they are all essentially the same film. Many of these Big Movies are thrilling and quite entertaining to a First Time LF moviegoer. But by the second or third trip to the Giant Screen - the experience might be old hat. This is not to say that the Giant Screen should become a venue for reaching art and experimental film enthusiasts – but there is a desperate need for innovation, for new and distinct voices. As it stands now, coming across a surprising Big Movie is exceedingly rare – almost as rare as finding a Large Format film made by a woman.

There are of course more than a few challenges, limitations and restrictions particular to LF filmmaking – obstacles that weigh down even the more daring storytellers. Further complicating the issue is the apparent economic need for even the dramatic LF film to pander to the Museum and Institutional theater kiddie crowds. There is nothing like a bit of purely superfluous “educational content” for throwing a wrench into dramatic flow. Hopefully, HAUNTED CASTLE has proven with its 3-D pyrotechnics that entertainment is justification enough for making a Large Format movie.

Let us here, praise and then consider the plight of those courageous few Big Movie makers who attempt the live action dramatic form. SKY DANCE, CHINA: THE PANDA ADVENTURE, THE LEGEND OF LOCH LOMOND, SIEGRFRIED AND ROY: THE MAGIC BOX, ACROSS THE SEA OF TIME, ULTIMATE Gs: ZACH’s FLYING DREAM, T-REX: BACK TO THE CRETACEOUS and WINGS OF COURAGE – the very decision to create these non-documentary films is boldly innovative, even if the end product is not. Unfortunately, the moviegoer cares little about behind the scenes efforts - only the story on the screen matters. What are some of the problems? Where are the solutions?

Apparently, the IMAX and IWERKS cameras have all the charm of diesel engines grinding away at full tilt. It is then no small task for an actor to perform in front of the clattering beast – not to mention the job of soundmen charged with capturing nuanced bits of dialogue. Clever microphone placements, clumsy camera covers and developing noise canceling technologies offer some hope. But the most common method of dealing with IMAX camera noise is by directing around it. The result is an off-putting phenomena where the camera noise is not at all heard, but is absolutely seen. The examples are numerous. Most of the dramas listed above are riddled with odd cutaways, off screen dialogue, skewed angles, sudden look-aways and back-of-the-head shots that cripple dramatic tension out of a need to conceal the dialogue source. By contrast, the out of synch dialogue that has made old Kung-Fu movies such a laugh riot, at least preserves the visual integrity of the film. The heavy handed, first person Voice Over is another less than successful method of getting around the on-screen dialogue problem. This usually results in a film that seems closer to radio drama – every image and action EXPLAINED.

Moving away from sound issues, the live-action, dramatic filmmaker working in LF so far has tried to tell his story in approximately 40 minutes: longer than the typical short film, shorter than a traditional three-act structure and not really comparable to a one-hour TV drama with established characters. LF dramatic structure might best be thought of as a One Act play with dialogue limitations – or perhaps each filmmaker must break new ground in discovering his or her own structure. In any case, these films will need good writing – a scarce commodity in LF films to date.

The Large Format filmmaker intent on making a fully realized live-action drama would do well to study the storytelling techniques of those celebrated directors who work(ed) in a style that is naturally conducive to the Giant Screen. Real stories told through subtly controlled action; sparing, shrewd and light-handed dialogue or no dialogue at all - Stanley Kubrick, Jacques Tati, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Akira Kurosawa, Abbas Kiarostami, Satyajit Ray and (INSERT YOUR OWN CHOICE HERE) come to mind. One does not have to be a master to learn from the masters. Countless directors have shown that finding the right story and telling it well is the first step in overcoming technical and all other obstacles.

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