Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dead Crabs Walking

This post is a brief change of pace for my blog, but I had an opportunity to interview a promising new film producer with stubbornly opinionated views on technology and film-making.

Michael Tandecki is a freelance contractor at Weta Digital, a visual effects company based in Wellington, New Zealand. He's also an independent filmmaker currently working on a campy feature film called Crab Island! Mike graciously agreed to sit down for an exclusive interview where we discussed the influence of technology on modern film production and story telling.

It sounds like you're working on movies 24/7. How do your own projects differ from your day job?

Well first of all, at my day job we work on films with at least 100 million dollar budgets, with a crew of around 600-2000 people. My current project is being self funded, (and we'll say costs much less than 100m), and I have a crew of three people and a cast of six.

When you work in a huge studio you're focused on a single aspect of the film. Every person is a part of the process, usually with just a single specific task. When I make my own films, I am the writer, director, editor, cinematographer, producer, animator, foley, and so on. That's one of the caveats of using your own money.

Do you use any animation in your own projects? How do you handle visual effects?

I've always been determined to make films I want to see. This time I chose a big monster movie. So the logical step would be to use digital effects, much like what I work on at my day job. However I grew up with films by Ray Harryhausen and Willis O'Brien. Every single one of their movies, which were originally all stop motion puppets, are being remade in 3D digital effects.

I, in my admitted stubbornness, am going the opposite direction. I'm going to actually do stop motion puppet animation for my film. This involves me using dead crabs, then animating them frame by frame by hand. The mixing of the live action and the animation will be done using a few techniques, one using computers to composite them. The crabs will be shot on a miniature green screen stage so I can digitally composite them into the footage, which is basically taking a cut out of the 2nd image and placing it on top of the original.

In movies like Transformers, and more recently Coraline, the graphics and effects amuse me for about 15 minutes, but then the story has to keep my interest or I grow bored. Do you think film studios are relying too much on the "gee whiz" eye-candy factor?

Yeah, this is a point of frustration for me. I am fully aware that the premise of my film, and the final product is not "high art," but I really hope that the story is at least compelling and the characters keep people entertained throughout.

Coraline, I really wanted to love. It was an old school stop motion film in 3D. However I felt the story fell flat.

Transformers, well that's another great example. I grew up with the series, and I remember the original film (1986 cartoon). The original film had a huge impact on me, it was the first time I remember seeing a hero of mine die. Optimus Prime dies in the film, and as a 9 year old boy, that was pretty intense. I had a relation to the characters and the story line. The new film had a lot of FX and no real cohesive story. It really let me down; I didn't understand the point of having a director who was in his 20's or so when the series first aired. All the kids that grew up with that series are in their 30's. There are plenty of directors (including me) who would have given their appendix to make it. It became immediately apparent that the creative team behind the film were removed from the source, and ended up with a bunch of eye candy, but no particular substance.

This is why I love the old style films, and am trying to make a film using those techniques. The original 1933 King Kong was the first film where I actually felt really sad when a huge monkey falls off of a building after being pummeled by airplanes. That film (King Kong) had what would be considered terrible visual effects by today's standard, but they still blow me away, not only visually but also the character seemed to have a heart -- something that seems to be missing in lots of these VFX heavy films. The "wow" seems to weigh in more heavily than the story. And yes, I know how silly it sounds coming from a guy whose movie has the tag line "Holy Shit!, That's one big fucking crab," but still, I stand by that my story holds up better than most.

Is 3-d here to stay? It's probably not as fun as using dead crabs.

3D was supposed to be here to stay when it was adopted in the "golden era" of 3D film [1952-1955]. At least back then they '"got it" -- they used it as a gimmick. Which is exactly what it is. I want to see things poking out at me, and duck when something flies over. However, I found in the latest batches of "serious" 3D films that we're more looking into the world versus being brought into it. The problem I personally have with 3D is that I have a problem focusing on the really distant and fast motion sequences. I end up just getting headaches after 30 minutes.

So will it stick, this time, almost 60 years later? Who knows, they are bringing it into our homes, so that's the next big step. I really have to be in the mood to throw on some glasses and know I'm walking into a headache to watch something in 3D. I like 3D in the cinemas, but I don't see myself going for it at home. And let's call an orange an orange, 3D is a gimmick; it's great fun, but without compelling stories, the gimmick will wear off quickly.

What do you think about digital technology keeping actors young forever?

I think it's creepy not allowing people to age. It would kind of creep me out if my parents never got any older, nor myself. It's a part of life, and a natural part at that. Also, by using digital technology to keep everyone young, it kind of stops us from finding the stars of the next generation.

What do you think of this photoshopped image on Gizmodo? The comment beneath it says "an Atari 2600 edition of Avatar would still get most of the point across." Regarding digital effects in general, is that comment silly or insightful?

I think it's fucking brilliant! And as I have my Atari 2600 on standby, I would boot that game up in a heart beat, and I guarantee the load times would smash that of any other currently released Avatar game.

I haven't read the script for Crab Island, but I'm betting it doesn't promote any particular ethos regarding capitalism, religion, tree-hugging or war. Would you ever make a film with a controversial or partisan message? Do you think it's foolish to engineer a happy ending when a film takes on such controversial topics?

Like I mentioned before, I make movies that I want to see. And in saying that, I just want to be entertained when I'm sitting in front of a movie screen. My sense of entertainment is laughter, action, drama, and so on. I'm not personally drawn to controversial / partisan messages in terms of social awareness or politics. I guarantee that I will be considered controversial but more in the ludicrousness of my characters.

I like comedy where people think there shouldn't be any, much like South Park -- I find that writing brilliant. It's a strange power you have when you write a story, movie, or anything else that will be seen by others. You can either tell the unbiased truth, or you can tell your message. I think the engineered "happy endings" come from people believing so strongly in what they're selling that they think it's what people want to digest -- much like high fructose corn syrup in America. But also you have to realize, the truth is damn boring, we want story tellers to entertain us. Even the most plain documentary is told at some slanted view, even if it's just camera angles, where the lens focuses and so on.

It's a brilliant medium, you have sound and vision and people have no chance to talk back, the images do not respond to heckling, they just keep going on. I'm pretty off topic I'm sure, so to sum up: Would I make a controversial film with an agenda, of course, you just gotta pay me enough to fool me into thinking I believe it. (It'd have to be a pretty big paycheck, I'm pretty stubborn). And if I made that film, I would definitely put the happiest ending possible, everyone would get married and have lots of money.

Do you think China or the Vatican would ever oppose one of your movies?

I don't think they'll oppose this particular one. I don't really have any plans to offend either, but they do seem rather touchy on most fronts, so you never know! I think if one of my films ever showed up on either of their radars, well shit, I'd be surprised and thrilled!

Finally, I noticed on Facebook that you have over 340,000 points in Bejeweled Blitz. How the hell do you do it?

I strive to do the best at everything I do. I saw that someone on my friends list had over 250,000 points when I first started playing. I could only get up to 35,000 so I figured there had to be a trick. I soon learned there wasn't, but sadly after 100 hours or so I found my groove. I try to use this determination in everything I do, from my day job, making movies, cooking, and well, sadly, playing online video games.

Thanks for talking to me tonight. Crab Island! sounds like a timeless fable embodying everything human and universal.

Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. I really hope that Crab Island! really opens people's eyes and hearts to what's going on in those parts of the world. It's a human message that I hope will continue to carry on for future generations.


Trung said...

wait a minute! optimus prime dies in the original cartoon movie?! nooooooo!!! :P

good interview btw!

fabutastic said...

I love the old-school monster movies! I hope Mike keeps us posted with behind-the-scenes details.

Here's the trailer for the original Attack of the Crab Monsters from 1957. Will Crab Island be able to match the sparkling dialogue and bloodcurdling screams? I guess we'll have to wait and find out.