Friday, January 13, 2006

Followup conversation to my lengthy KING KONG analysis...

Bringing a conversation on a December comment thread to the fore:

An anonymous commenter responding to Tuesday, December 20, 2005's post "Off to Skull Island... (Part the Second)" just posted the following comment:

"I don't know what you're trying to say here, but I think I disagree. For one thing, much like Andy Serkis was Gollum, Ang Lee donned the mocap suit and provided a substantial portion of reference for the Hulk. The idea that CG is somehow so much more complex than 2d or stop-motion that an individual animator cannot be assigned to a character is also a false notion. In 2d features, any animator credited with with a particular character is in reality usually taking the lead on that character, and supervising a team who follow up in assisting, and animating other scenes. It is perfectly possible to have lead animators assigned to cg characters as well.

I agree with the general thrust, that it is probably better for one individual to take the lead in defining the character. A lot of the rest here seems to be the same slobbering reverential treatment that is so often thoughlessly given to Harryhausen and O'Brien. As if O'Brien and Harryhausen had some secret knowledge that has eluded the CG artists. And as if Jackson is somehow privy to this, being the Kong/stop-motion fan that he is.

It comes across as an attitude that might develop as a result of knowing the animators behind the stop-motion and cartoon films, but not knowing the artists behind the CG. Some of the key guys behind Kong had stellar stop-motion backgrounds, but that also is not neccesarily the key to why one performance worked, and another performance failed. Part of it is that these artists come from an artform that has matured, and while cg was in it's infancy, artists from stop-motion and traditional animation backgrounds have a century of work to build upon.

The reason the Hulks's performance was a failure is mostly down to the eyes. There were a few bizarre scenes that defied the law of gravity, but mostly it comes down to a lack of expressiveness in the eyes and face. You will see much the same thing in the mocapped film "The Polar Express". There is a glassy, detatched look that fails to engage with an audience. That's the main thing. Acting is done through the whole body, and limp gesturing doesn't help either, but it is mostly the eyes that let down these performances. Compare this to the expressiveness seen in films like the Incredibles."

[posted 1/12/2006]

Anonymous said...
additionaly, I believe the Hulk was almost handled entirely at ILM.

[posted 1/12/2006]

To which I've just replied -- and now bring up here, so everyone can read it and re-engage, if you wish --

SRBissette said...

"Hello, anonymous, and thanks for reading [my blog] and posting your comments.

My broad point is one I believe is true: whatever the medium (and in terms of stop-motion animation and CGI, I am not arguing anything is inherently "for" one or "against" another), the viewer responds unconsciously to the infusion of an artist's personality in a work. The viewer also 'feels' it when there's a vacuum there -- no infusion of personality -- or when piecemeal work doesn't add up to a coherent infusion of personality: a character.

Even in the context of a lengthy, five-part writeup (a far broader canvas than any publisher would ever offer me), I have had to rely on a certain amount of shorthand. I chose to reference Harryhausen and O'Brien not to lionize them per se or argue stop-motion as inherently superior (it isn't; we could cite many sloppy and characterless stop-motion-driven films of yore: THE LOST CONTINENT, DINOSAURUS!, THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, etc.), but to make the point that when there's a strong guiding hand (in the case of O'Brien) or clearly individualized puppeteer/animator (Harryhausen, Tytla), the results usually engage viewers on a more compelling level.

Given the one-two punch of Gollum and Kong with Jackson and Serkis's collaborative efforts with the WETA team, it seems obvious to me they've forged the first compelling means of coherent characterization via CGI in the context of live-action/CGI fantasy (clearly, PIXAR and others have amply demonstrated strong characterization in all-CGI features and shorts). This is the first coherent expression of a new principle in such films, and as such worth noting and discussing.

I chose THE HULK as a handy reference point; your noting the lack of life in the eyes of the character is accurate and I agree, but you're missing my point. THE HULK failed in part because the effects-created character didn't have an identifiable personality; as the CINEFX article detailed (the most intensive in-print analysis of the film's production I know of), yes, ILM handled the effects by and large, but it was still a fragmented affair -- typical of today's productions -- and there was no coherent expression of a potent and individualized enough personality in the Hulk. The fact that the Hulk, as a character, also bore no relation to Eric Bama's performance (as alter-ego Bruce Banner) was an even graver flaw (though as the TV series proved, the separation of performances -- Banner and Hulk embodied by different performers or, in the case of the film, methods of performance -- still could have worked, had the Hulk been a identifiable personality in and of himself). That the HULK was "almost handled entirely at ILM" misses the point: to my mind, much of what ILM has produced is technically accomplished but devoid of character or soul, and that's another discussion altogether.

As masters of the form like Phil Tippett (to cite the man whose career spans both stop-motion animation and CGI) have noted time and time again, this is character creation & animation, not just special effects. This is clearly central to the success or failure of a given film when the titular centerpiece of a given film -- KING KONG, THE HULK -- is a single character. In terms of characterization alone, the striking contrast between the failure of Ang Lee/ILM's THE HULK and the success of Jackson, Serkis, WETA's KING KONG is obvious, and worth analysis.

As the excellent two-part CINEFX group interview of top-drawer effects/CGI celebrities and experts hammered home, almost all contemporary Hollywood films are dependent upon collapsing postproduction pressures that demand "more and more" (quantitatively and in terms of superficial quality) effects in less and less time, forcing increasing piecemeal farming-out of specific setpieces and effects while cutting off artists from active involvement in films in their seminal creative phases. Thus, the organic involvement on a pre-production level that was characteristic of the best work of O'Brien and Harryhausen is increasingly remote -- in fact, if you want to get into it, O'Brien's post-MIGHTY JOE YOUNG career anticipated the norm of how such fantasy films are produced today, with O'Brien and Pete Peterson reduced to 'hired hands' rushing their best efforts through compressed post-production windows, their final efforts mismatched with sequences by other effects houses (see THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, the complete version, that includes the laughable ferry boat sequence O'Brien & Peterson had nothing to do with) or compromised by cheapjack producer shorthand (see THE BLACK SCORPION, where it was decided the black matte was sufficient for the climax, though the animation was completed). Harryhausen saw this and correctly diagnosed what was happening to his beloved mentor; thus, Harryhausen forged his relationship with a producer (Charles Schneer) and maintained a strong enough hand as co-producer in that relationship to remain integrally involved with all facets of production. As Paul M. Jensen has accurately noted (in his remarkable career-spanning analysis of Harrhausen's films), this was as much of a detriment as a strength: for Harryhausen and his methods, directors were interchangable functionaries, and many of the films suffer for that.

It seems obvious to me that, despite enormous odds, Peter Jackson and WETA have developed a comparable model for the new era of filmmaking we're all enjoying. This has been facilitated in part by their geographic specificity of production (New Zealand), which has granted both an autonomy almost impossible in Hollywood today; but there's also no denying the track record they've racked up with the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy and now KONG also is critical to their autonomy. Across the board, as a team, they've infused everything they've done with tremendous personality and power, in stark contrast to the sterile soullessness of Lucas's empire (and, by extension, some of ILM's efforts, though there are lovely exceptions to that assessment). Thus, Jackson, Serkis, and WETA present a new template -- related to the old (of O'Brien in his prime, and Harryhausen throughout his career), and most importantly artist-driven from top to bottom rather than commerce-driven.

Your observations and assessment of POLAR EXPRESS are also on the money; in one draft of my writeup, I began to address that film, too, but chose to cut back and maintain my focus on live-action/CGI fusion fantasy. That it led to a rather extensive diversion (in which I wondered aloud if Robert Zemeckis was the 'problem,' citing Jackson's THE FRIGHTENERS as the obvious bridge between the two filmmakers -- Zemeckis produced the film -- and the least personable of Jackson's films as well) also prompted me to cut that digression, which is neither here nor there.

Thanks for pushing for further discussion -- happy to engage further!"

I'll add a few points here:

* Yes, I know Willis O'Brien and Pete Peterson worked on THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959), one of the films I cite as a 'bad' stop-motion example. Note my contextualization of this later in my reply; like all of O'Brien's post-1949 projects, O'Brien and Pete Peterson were relegated to freelancers contributing effects as outside contractors, far from the heyday of O'Brien's studio-subsidized work under the umbrella producer Merian C. Cooper offered at RKO.

* Yes, I know Phil Tippett was among ILM's effects team. That's no longer the case, nor has it been for some time, hence my reference to Tippett and ILM as separate entities.

* If anyone wishes, I'm happy to dip into the ol' SpiderBaby library and cite book titles, magazine titles/dates, etc. regarding my references in the reply. In the context of the comment thread, though, I was writing off the top of my head and what was in easy reach.

Carry on!
Sample contract: The Bold New Era of Electronic Media

Back in July of 2005, I replied at length to one of Dave Sim's letters (the back and forth is posted at the Creator Bill of Rights site forever accessible from the menu at your right). Relevent to the discussion underway here, I've decided to open up discussion of actual contracts and legal documents that have crossed my desk since the late 1990s by citing the particulars of the most recently rejected contract.

Before we get into this, let me remind everyone I am not an attorney or in any way practiced in law. My insights and discussion is founded upon three decades of freelancing, and my considerable experience with contracts as a freelancer.

Here we go:

I can’t address contemporary indy comics contracts with any particular insight, as the only ones I’ve been privy to aren’t mine to discuss, but it is interesting to note that yours [Dave Sim's] statement “...when creators essentially started getting absolute rights and leaving the publishers with no rights or few rights and certainly few venues by which to profit from being publishers” is already being aggressively addressed in other markets.

Note, for instance, that your suggestion for some sort of industry standard for terms by which a publisher might be rewarded long-term for offering beneficial advice is already precluded by existing agreements that must be signed before submissions are even considered, in which the freelancer acknowledges other work just like it might already be under consideration -- effectively signing away any proprietary rights to one’s work just to have it considered for publication. In the vernacular of the Roy Rogers westerns, “Cut ‘em off at the pass!”

[Note: I will find a copy of this type of pre-submission document and post it here in the near future. Continuing:]

Intellectual property is the coin of the 21st Century, and we’re seeing how this is playing out in multiple fields. It’s been interesting to see how some of the recent contracts I’ve been offered address this situation. In all venues -- comics, magazines, newspapers -- the coin of the realm is clearly that which can be translated to other media. In many such agreements, language providing the illusion of creator ownership (and illusion of negotiation, when they are almost always take-it-or-leave-it fait accompli agreements) while assuring the publisher gets the real goods has become as tortured as the U.S. Attorney General’s justification for the current administration’s treatment of detainees (how’s that for hyperbole?).

The most inventive of these basically spell out all the rights the publisher is acquiring (often for a song), while acknowledging somewhere along the line something called copyright stills belongs to the author/creator -- after the contract has effectively stripped away anything of value from such ownership.

Case in point: after completing a trio of articles for a local newspaper for which I’ve written off and on since 1998 (including over a year as a regular weekly columnist), and which is now owned by a larger media corporation, my standard pay invoice procedure was interrupted by an apologetic letter from the editor and the following contract.

This is not the first time I’ve seen this kind of retroactive “your pay for THIS job now grants us THESE rights going back to 19--” contracts; the first time I saw it was, of course, Marvel’s “blanket work-for-hire” contract in 1978, the first and last time I ever signed this kind of reprehensible document; the first time I saw it in the magazine market was Starlog Communications’ retroactive work-for-hire contract in the early 1990s, after I’d caught them reprinting my copyrighted Gorezone column “With My Eyes Peeled” in their Italian editions without negotiation, permission, or payment. It’s too bad, as it means one simply refuses payment, refuses to sign, and loses another venue for work -- but they lose another creator/author in turn. All of this cumulatively marginalizes all but those freelancers with either the clout to insist upon genuine negotiations and mutually beneficial contracts, or those willing to sign anything for any level of work for any level of payment.

I am presenting the contract as it was received, mere days ago, and offer it as a current legal document circulating in the journalism and newspaper field, with parenthetical numbers to footnote my comments, which follow.

Dear Contributor to [the Publisher],

This letter is an agreement between you and [the Publisher] concerning materials you submit for publication (“Materials”). You will be paid fees for these Materials as negotiated between us on a per-piece basis (1). You agree that any such Materials will be your own work in which [the Publisher] will enjoy non-exclusive “publication rights.” (2) [the Publisher]’s “publication rights” shall include the right to publish and republish the Materials; the right not to publish the work, despite having paid for publication; to create derivative works; to use, adapt, modify, perform, transmit or reproduce such Materials and derivatives therefrom in any form or medium, whether now or hereafter, throughout the world, including, without limitation, compilation, microfilm, electronic or other databases, and any digital format in any medium, and to transfer or sublicense any of the publication rights to any entity controlled by or acting for the benefit of [the Publisher] or with whom [the Publisher] contracts.

Notwithstanding this grant of right, three days after first publication of your work in [the Publisher’s venue], you may republish the Materials in any form or medium without geographical restrictions. (3)

You agree that you will be the sole author of the material, which will be original work by you, free of plagiarism, that all facts and statements in the Materials are true and that the Materials do not infringe upon any copyright, right of privacy, proprietary right, right of publicity or any other right of a third party.

You agree that [the Publisher] has the right to edit the Materials as it deems appropriate for publication, and that you will cooperate with [the Publisher] in editing and otherwise reviewing the material prior to publication. You will cooperate with [the Publisher] if any complaints, claims or litigation should arise against [the Publisher] regarding your Materials, and if you comply with the terms of this agreement, you will be entitled to any applicable coverage arising from any applicable [Publisher] policies respecting your Materials. You agree that the Materials include any works by you published by [the Publisher] since September 1, 1995 (4). You retain copyright to all Materials covered by this contract (5).

You are responsible for the payment of all federal, state and/or local taxes with respect to the services you perform for [the Publisher] (6) as an independent contractor. [The Publisher] will not treat you as an employee for any purpose (7).

The submission of Materials by you as a freelancer, as well as the receipt of payment for such Materials is a binding acknowledgement of the grant of these rights to [the Publisher], which will be relied upon by [the Publisher] and other entities with which [the Publisher] may contract (8). In addition, your endorsement of any check issued to you shall constitute your confirmation of the continued existence of this agreement (9). If this is acceptable, please sign and date the enclosed copy of this letter, provide your Social Security number, and return the signed copy to me.

We look forward to working with you (10).


(1) Note: Nothing was negotiated -- this contract was for work already published last month, which was invoiced per usual sans any such document or signing required. Negotiation has been actively discouraged, leaving me in the position to explicitly state what they cannot do with my work, insist upon payment or be willing to lose that earned income, and go. I have, in fact, been until now paid by this Publisher the same per-piece rate I was first paid in 1998, with the understanding per verbal agreement in 1999 that they are purchasing one-time, first-time rights only with no electronic media or online publication rights. Whenever a per-piece rate increase has been inquired about, it has resulted in nothing being renegotiated -- and, in the case of my weekly column, mutual termination of relations -- hence the increasing infrequency of my writing for this publisher.

(2) These are their quotations marks, not mine.

(3) However, one’s rights to said material are so compromised by this contract that one could not, for instance, do so via an agreement with a subsequent publisher or venue that required the very next paragraph of this contract be observed: that one’s rights to the Material does “...not infringe upon any copyright... proprietary right... or any right of a third party,” in which case this Publisher would be an infringed-upon third party. This is the Catch-22 of the contract, implying the author has rights left to sell or traffic after signing this document. The author does not.

(4) Ah, the zinger, neatly buried in paragraph four. For all intents and purposes, this means if I accept the $75 due me for the three articles being invoiced -- a pittance -- I have retroactively revised my prior agreement with the Publisher, and signed away all rights to almost two years worth of weekly columns I am about to anthologize in book form, and all other articles, some of which I have already resold to other publishers over the past seven years.

(5) Another beaut, buried at the end of paragraph four -- after, of course, having stripped away all rights relevant to one’s ownership of copyright. Beware this kind of language in all contracts; I have seen this sort of language and placement rendering copyright ownership moot in two comics publishers contracts since 1997.

(6) Note the shift from Materials -- a finite, defined quantity -- to “services.” I am not a lawyer, and cannot articulate what this means.

(7) This is standard work-for-hire language, BTW. Signing this agreement gives one none of the benefits of an employee, none of the benefits of a freelancer, as far as I can see.

(8) Note that, with signing, the author has already implicitly agreed to multiple contracts with entities other than the Publisher. This statement here means one has done more than explicitly agreed to the Materials as a transferable property, but indeed has agreed to unknown/undefined contracts with unknown/unspecified entities.

(9) The 2005 corporate media variant on the old Marvel ‘back of check’ agreement: “endorsement of ANY check issued to you” (my emphasis) explicitly extending the terms and “continued existence of this agreement” -- hence, it is both retroactive, per the penultimate sentence in paragraph four, but also covers all future Materials once checks are endorsed.

(10) Not bloody likely in what’s left of this lifetime.

Having now offered you the complete contents of a contract submitted to this freelance writer as recently as June of 2005, may I humbly suggest we all agree the Creator Bill of Rights is still relevant, and to more media than just comics?

[End of July CBR site letter excerpt.]

By the way, that issue was never 'resolved' -- that is, despite my calls to the paper's relevent editor, and the suggestion from said editor "we get together on this next week," I never signed, the newspaper never paid me, and my attempts to pursue the matter were simply ignored. In my experience, this is how these matters are 'resolved' by many publishers, and how freelancers 'lose' an account -- when the terms of employment are suddenly supplanted with a revisionist, almost always retroactive Draconian "new agreement" (which no one has agreed to). If one asks for negotiation or demurs, end of story. End of account.

[To be continued as time permits...]