Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Attack of the (Fan Produced) Clones...

Is there anything that is more ridiculous than fan films?

It certainly is commendable on the part of fans to forsake work, family and community service for an important endeavor that makes no one money or supports none of the family or friends of any of the people involved. Now I’m not against hobbies. I have a few myself, like blogging, but there is a line and fan films cross that line by a few parsecs. I remember my first introduction to fan films. When the Star Wars prequels were coming out there were too many fan films to count posting at all the various fan sites. I was a frequent peruser of those Star Wars sites because I wanted every spoiler I could get my geeky little hands on back then. I wanted to know everything. Almost every one of the spoiler sites had a section for Star Wars Fan Films. For the most part they were terrible, home movie jobs that were done in backyards all over suburbia.

The one thing that most of the better-made fan films had gotten down was the special effects. They are not bad. As long as they can be on par or better than let’s say 1950s B-movie effects then I’m sold. I still think the original Star Trek series shot of the Enterprise orbiting the planet d’jour looks good, minimal yet effective, especially for 1960s technology. I am also not bothered by the camera shaking technique they employed to symbolize a direct hit by a Klingon torpedo. It works for me. Having never been sojourned on a Starship by the Federation who am I to criticize? How do we know that direct hits to the saucer section don’t feel and look like that? Then again, I’m actually impressed with the special effects on the Power Rangers Movies so I’m not a good critic.

OK, I do have a discriminating eye and I can tell cheesy or sub par effects from the top of the line SFX produced by ILM but story can pretty much overcome most bad SFX. I still enjoy many old movies that haven’t had the George Lucas SFX revisionist handle just fine, bad effects and all.

So that’s not the bad part of fan films. I can take the bad SFX and I am just as happy and impressed when they turn out professional. I mean rotoscoping a lightsaber is good enough for me. Since all these films are made by the uber geeks anyway, you have to expect that the SFX at least will be passable at least.

Costuming is another area of these fan films that don’t bother me. Just like with the SFX, the uber geek spends a lot of time fashioning the perfect Federation uniform or Storm Trooper armor baked to perfection in his mother’s oven. I mean if you and I haven’t watched these movies a thousand times and collected all the miniatures and action figures and know every detail of ever second rate commander in the galaxy then what the hell are we even doing here, right? The costuming seems pretty good too. And the backgrounds and sets, though not nearly as good as the costuming, seem satisfactory. These guys are technically good, that’s for sure.

If Special Effects, Costuming and Backgrounds were all that made a movie work then we’d have a damn hard time coming up with Academy Award winner every year. Sometimes I think that’s all today’s movie producers think about. Put in a dash of sex, a pinch of violence and sprinkle with bad language and cheap SFX and you’ve got 75% of the releases in genre movies every year.

But there is something that even separates the schlock of Hollywood from even the best of the fan films by a span equal to the square of the length of the Throg’s Neck Bridge. That something is actually threefold: Acting, Dialogue and Story. Maybe it’s because that these fan films are usually make by geeks-unpaid geeks at that-that they don’t have the time or the talent to think about the three most important elements in filmmaking. Every time I find myself falling into a deep depression about the overall quality of the Star Wars Prequels or the remake of one of my favorite genre books and or video games all I have to do is watch one of these fan films to set my mind straight. Because no matter how terrible or cheap these films are essentially made by professionals.

The acting is the most dismal part of these films. You cannot get me to watch the most beautifully made film with the best cinematography if the SFX are seamless and convincing unless your actors can speak their lines without tripping over themselves or with any genuine feeling whatsoever. Most of the acting in fan films is atrocious. I can watch the worst B-Movie, Made for Television, Lifetime Original or worse yet, SciFi Channel Original and still walk away with a glimmer of respect for the attempt at professionalism the actors came to the set with. This is why even for bit roles the better movies hire real life, SAG card-carrying actors.

I have to digress here to point out a glaring flaw in the Star Wars prequels over the originals. For the most part George Lucas used real actors for even bit roles. In the final battle scenes even guys who appeared long enough to give their signature and then get blown to bits were real actors. In the prequels we had battle scenes that seemed stiff because the guy who invented Photoshop gets a bit screen shot or George Lucas’ daughter needs to be on screen telling Baby Anakin that his podracer won’t run. So even in Hollywood the producers like to stick their friends on screen as a treat. Of course it’s been said that George Lucas is the biggest independent filmmaker in Hollywood history and it sorta shows.

Anyway, the reason directors hire real professional actors is that they have training. They’ve been on a few sets. They can deliver a line without heaving it out there like a big fart. Some of these fan films give a new definition for the word cardboard acting. They are just bad. It’s not their fault they aren’t actors. They’re programmers and networkers and graphic designers with a dream, a hobby and a little time on their hands. They are not actors. This is why when you go to get your car tuned up you don’t ask the green grocer to do it. He’s not a professional mechanic. You go to someone with some training. You might have to pay a little money but it’s worth it. Ever got a haircut from someone’s Mom who sat you in her kitchen chair and wrapped a towel around you and then proceeded to give you the infamous “bowl cut?” We’ve all been there. Bad haircuts and bad acting are two pitiful signs that a person is trying to be someone they are not. Go spend a few Yen at the Lemon Tree on a haircut. Sure the Lemon Tree is not known for its high fashion styling but even if the haircut is not great it’s at least someone who was licensed taking a scissor to your head. Same thing with fan films. If it’s free you might want to avoid it, or you’ll be pining for those hours of time back at the end of your life.

When you hear bad dialogue you know it. You can’t avoid the stiff sound, the lack of emotion, the fakeness. Spoken conversations are a key element to success in writing. If you can write believable dialogue then you’ve won half the battle. If you are a really good actor you can make almost anything sound good with the right spin. That’s the actor’s job. One of the best characters in both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Star Wars prequels was Christopher Lee. That’s because after all those years playing in B Horror movies he’s used to spouting bad dialogue. He’s a genius at it. Bad dialogue said by bad actors sounds doubly worse because they don’t have the time or inclination to practice.

Story is the essential element in every movie. It is the story that gets a movie made in the first place. Without it you have a bunch of good-looking people standing around with cool gadgets but no idea what to do. I have found that most of the fan films tend to deviate from the cannon of the movie they are trying to emulate into geek fantasyland. It’s the story they would make if they finally had the chance to write and direct an episode of Star Trek. For the most part they have the concepts right but they tend to stick a little too much into the mix. It’s useful to have a good editor around not just to match up scenes but also to cut scenes when they don’t work or add to the progression of the storyline. The fan films try to include everything they shoot (understandable since they have little free time to re-shoot scenes or film anything that may not be used). It’s just that we don’t need that side trip to revisit a long lost bit character in one of the episode just to show how geeky we really are that not only do we remember he character but we can fit him into a logical place in the plot of this universe. It’s those complexities that confuse the casual fan and bore those who don’t to dig so deep into the layering of the storyline.

I have a friend who fosters disk after disk of fan films on me. I try to watch them, I really do. Every time I hear someone rave about another fan produced film I get excited, like this will be the one that blows me away and makes me claim that the days of big budget movies are over. So far, I am not impressed.


The Phoenix said...

You hit on a great note. Fan films are actually funny for me. The best is when the "actors" look into the camera.

The only one that really impressed me was "The Art of the Saber." You can find it on youtube.com.

It's not a full fan film, but a neat vignette on the Star Wars theme. The movie opens up with the reading of an authentic Civil War letter.

The fight sequence rivals that of any George Lucas movie.

ObilonKenobi said...

Sometimes I can't even get through them to laugh at them.

The Phoenix said...

When's your podcast coming?

I was surprised how easy it was...and I needed to buy nothing. Although getting a good microphone helps. My brother is a musician, and I'm borrowing his for my second podcast. It's a Sony ECM-MS907. I think he said it cost $125.

I found great places for music and stuff, and even for recording and hosting your podcast for free.