Thoughts On: February 2017


Bad - Who Knew???

Quick Thoughts: Bad (1987)

The Michael Jackson song.

I'm probably about to sound like a complete moron to many people, but, Martin Scorsese, Martin Scorsese, directed this music video... yeah... the guy who made Goodfellas, Mean Streets and a billion other films we all know. Who the fuck could have guessed this!?

I honestly thought it was a joke as I was looking through Scorsese's filmography, but, apparently not. And looking at the full 18 minute music video you do get the feeling that it is Scorsese directing - the fast zooms and pans really give it away. This makes sense considering his notorious use of music throughout his films and other works of his such as George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Shine A Light and No Direction Home: Bob Dylan. But, Scorsese even goes and pulls another Hitchcock-esque cameo in this music video as he did in Taxi Driver...

... just look:

And added to this, we also get a young Wesley Snipes...

... yep, Wesley Snipes...

So, whether it be an amusing fact or something you already knew, maybe this changes the Michael Jackson music video for you somewhat. If not, well, it surprised and interested me.

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Red Dead Redemption: The Man From Blackwater - How Do You Adapt A Video Game?

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Red Dead Redemption: The Man From Blackwater - How Do You Adapt A Video Game?

Thoughts On: Red Dead Redemption: The Man From Blackwater (2010)

A reformed outlaw attempts to infiltrate a notoriously malicious gang fort.

Red Dead Redemption is one of the few videos games I've played. I wouldn't say I used to be a gamer, but I did enjoy the likes of Burnout, Halo, Grand Theft Auto and, of course, Red Dead Redemption. So, this is what sparked my interest to check out this film and what also contributed greatly to my enjoyment of it. This short was made by Rockstar Games and directed by the man who helmed The Road and Lawless, and follows the main story line of the open world game. In fact, the short is made mostly out of the cut scenes you see in game. This is certainly the main strength of this short and arguably makes it one of the best video game adaptations out there.

As almost anyone could tell you, there really hasn't been a great video game adaptation. The first Mortal Kombat...

... enjoyable, fun, but really stupid and incredibly cheesy. The Lara Croft films...

... again, enjoyable, fun, Angelina Jolie is great in the lead, but these are terribly made films that do not reflect the actual games. The 2007 Hitman...

... I quite enjoyed this one when I first watched it. But, it really doesn't hold up and it is ultimately just a very weak film. The Resident Evil movies...

... just like the Lara Croft adaptations, they have their strengths, but they're not so great. Same goes for the Silent Hill films...

... they just don't capture the atmosphere, tone or purpose of the games. The 2009 Tekken...

... again, yet another case of, enjoyable, but easily thrown away. We could go on and on picking out video game adaptations, but, there seems to be two main problems with these movies and how they're adapted. The first is tantamount to comparing animation with live action.

Studio Ghibli make some of the best animated movies ever. However, if you were to adapt any of Miyazaki's films into live action, even as a shot-for-shot remake, I believe that the final product would be awful. Beyond the art of hand drawn animation, this is because animation has its tropes, conventions, aesthetic, tone and audience. Just as musicals cannot be consumed in the same manner an action film would be, animation cannot be watched, nor created, as you would a live action feature. In short, certain things work in one class of cinema, but not another because form and content are not individual elements of art, they have to reflect one another.

This paradigm is many times more prevalent when you consider the adaptation of a video game. Whilst you could attempt to make a shot-for-shot live action adaptation of Spirited Away, you could not do the same with a game such as Red Dead Redemption. This is simply because you spend 90% of your time riding your horse, shooting people, birds, bears, deer, wolves or tying up prostitutes and laying them down on train tracks. So, because you can play open world games for dozens of hours with a trillion variables and choices of action, there is no possibility of a shot-for-shot remake. What you then lose here is the substance a draw of almost all games. However, you still have the cut away scenes that could be adapted - assuming these come close to 2 hours. But, there is still a major hurdle to be faced. Just as animated films have their conventions and aspects that will not be palatable in live actions remakes - dialogue is often a significant example of this - so do video games. For example, imagine the adaptation of Super Mario Bros...

... actually used Mario's voice. Yeah, the "It's a me... Mario!" one. That would be unbearable, right? There are many other examples I could give, but I think the point has been made; most video games work solely as just video games, so leave them as such.

There is seemingly an understanding of this in many video game adaptations, which is why we have the second main problem with this kind of movie: they have nothing to do with the games themselves.

It's because you can't actually make a Super Mario Bros. film that everyone who contributed to the creation of the 1993 shit-bomb tried to make what they did. We see this to be the biggest downfall of even the better video game adaptations. When you look to the Silent Hill, Resident Evil and Lara Croft films, you'll often find that most who know nothing about the games just see them as bad movies, but those who know the games say that they missed so much and had bastardised the story and form of the games. All of this comes from the fact that gamers enjoy types of gameplay that cannot be shown cinematically - or are just very hard to represent through film. For example, look to the Lara Croft or Resident Evil games...

We see puzzles and a slow exploration of environments that you can't see and can't feel when watching a movie as viewers don't have controllers. This is also linked to the idea of conventions as you cannot make a Super Mario Bros. film that functions anything like the game played on Nintendo systems. And it's ultimately these barriers that make a movie a movie and a video game a video game that filmmakers have always fallen short of overcoming.

So, what we're left with is a question of How? How do you adapt a video game? There are two answers to this question. The first is that you take the comic book adaptation model.

Everything from The Dark Knight films to the Marvel movies embrace the fact that they are movies before they are comic books. In such, they often take characters, loose story lines and then focus on making a cohesive film. This is what is wrong with many of the video game adaptations; they aren't trying to just be good movies, they are trying to be a blend of both game and cinema. This is what we see in Doom:

It starts out as a crappy, cheap movie and then jumps into a first person shooter. There is no conviction and so neither of the side of this movie is particularly good. What then needs to happen is that people stop hiring filmmakers like Duncan Jones so much because they make movies as fans.

A fan will want to pay homage to a video game and will want to introduce conventions of the world that don't really fit into the cinematic form. The same thing would happen if you took a huge anime fan and let them make a movie. They'd bring many aspects of anime into the cinema - elements that just don't work on film.

This all sounds harsh and somewhat dismissive of the games and fans, but what seems to be obvious is that you'd have to hope for that 1 in 100 filmmaker/fan to make a great adaptation. This means that, with the system and approach that is apparently in place, you probably will get a great video game movie eventually. After all, if the Wachowski's are huge anime fans and made The Matrix...

... then it is possible that we'd get something great out of a video game fan. But, what is also very possible is that we get 1 great video game adaption and then something tantamount to Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions. It's these films expose the terrible writing that is masked over with great world building in the original Matrix film. Moreover, the action scenes became a focus and there was an attempt to 'borrow' from anime...

... but, it just wasn't good enough. This validates the idea of that 1 filmmaker out of 100 and that 1 hit wonder movie. So, what seemingly needs to happen is that we get someone like Christopher Nolan to take on a video game project. In doing this we'll get a director that will see his movie as a film, not an adaptation.

This is a very intuitive idea that many could tell you. What I want to offer, however, is an alternative perspective that takes Red Dead Redemption: The Man From Blackwater as a key reference point. And this perspective hopefully won't alienate the fan/director, nor the game itself - which will have many obvious benefits. So, instead of asking how you can adapt a video game into movie, I think that we should stop to recognise that video games are trying to replicate cinema...

... are striving to become more like movies...

... and have been for quite a while. What you then find when looking at many modern video games is that the core difference between the game and a movie (beyond the fact that you are controlling characters) is framing.

It's considering the aesthetic form of video games in this manner that you can understand that if you shift from constant POV or centre framing, you get cinema. There could be mediation and experimentation on the formal differences, but, seeing the similarities and taking a look at the Red Dead Redemption short, it becomes very apparent that you don't really need live action and you don't always need video games to inhabit a cinematic world.

Even though the graphics of Red Dead Redemption here and even the best looking video games aren't perfect, it is very possible to successfully translate the aesthetic and feel of the game into a movie.

If the movement, texture and lighting of the video game aesthetic was smoothed out, refined and turned into a style that didn't just strive for photorealism, instead embraced the 'video game look', making movies out of video games becomes so much more plausible. Don't revert to live action, let video game movies be animated.

You can still cast great actors in roles and get great performances when realism is required. And when it comes to fantasy...

... the CG won't be as obvious and the movement of characters will be given so much more leeway. After all, what we often see from  films like Warcraft...

... is something tantamount to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or Space Jam.

However, these movies know that they're aesthetically shaky as the cartoon figures do not fit in well with people. But, this was embraced and overcome with story - there being a cartoon world or toon town that we must venture into. You don't get this explanation for, or integration into story of, CG in video game movies. So, because you don't want to constantly follow the Space Jam approach or be fighting for realism, why not just let video game adaptations being animated?

Considering another side to fantasy in games, we have to look to something such as Burnout.

The Burnout games, especially the fourth, Revenge, do something that no film has ever managed. They personify objects, like a car, but without giving them character - like we see in many kids films or television shows...

When Need For Speed was turned into a movie, it didn't capture the purpose of racing games, it just became a rip-off of Fast & Furious.

What Need For Speed did was turn the cut scenes into a movie by focusing on the drivers that aren't really apart of any of the games. This use of cut scenes is what I've been suggesting and will further discuss, however, it has to be said that I hugely support experimentation once you take live action and traditional plotting out of the mix. In such, I'd love to see the approach taken to create Red Dead Redemption: The Man From Blackwater used to make a Burnout movie. In essence, could there be an animated video game movie version of Mad Max: Fury Road?

Moving on, making video game adaptations animated and so directly linked to their source pretty much solves the two main issues raised - those being that video game adaptations do not translate the conventions of their primary source to cinema or are complete non-sequiturs that do not capture their essence. Taking the direct aesthetic, world and tone of a game, like is done in Red Dead Redemption: The Man From Blackwater, really immerses you into all that made the game great. And, under this aesthetic guise, I believe that this Red Dead Redemption adaptation is one of the best video game movies out there. However, there is still a major problem that we haven't yet touched on: character and story.

Video games and cinema project character and story in two completely differing ways. Movies have cinematic spaces. This essentially means that the camera is the only portal we have into the world. The camera is then controlled and managed with direction, cinematography and editing. These, and other, components come together to convey to an audience a cinematic space. Characters then inhabit this. We see their actions and behaviours through imagery controlled by framing, mise en scène, cinematography and editing. Story is translated in a similar manner - all through cinematic devices.

Whilst video games also have a 'camera' as they play out on the same screens that movies often do, this camera is not just controlled by animators, but also by you. A game is nothing without your hands on a controller, so whilst the space may seem cinematic from time to time, it is predominantly game-like. What this means is that you control the projection, behaviour and actions of a character - to a very large extent, you characterise figures in games. John Marston does have given character traits as we enter the film and see the cut scenes. However, our connection to him is truly founded upon the fact that we use him as a vessel for ourselves; so that we may stab prostitutes, capture murderers, hunt deer, search for treasure, ride horses and explore the open world. Because we are given this control, there is that innate connection which allows us to skip cut scenes that alleviates quite a bit of weight off of video game developers' shoulders. Yes, they have to worry about character and story, but, they know that for a vast majority of the time, you will judge the game on the world design and the conflicts put in place that you have to come over with the use of a controller. This is what makes a game like Pac Man a game that should never be adapted into a movie or TV series.

Many people have a 'love' for Pac Man as a character. Why? The easy answer is, who the fuck knows? But, the truth seems to lie in the fact that we attribute the great feelings of playing a video game onto a character. A similar thing happens with Mario and a game like Mortal Kombat...

People like Scorpion because he is cool and they can do cool shit with him - and that's primarily it, especially in the early games. However, being cool isn't enough when it comes to cinema just as being a character who allows us to play an addictive game isn't. Why? Because game spaces and cinematic spaces are, as described, constructed differently. This is then the biggest hurdle in the world of video game adaptation: how do you find the story and characters and put them in a cinematic space?

The answer lies in the observation that games are becoming more cinematic. Gamers are seemingly drawn to and enjoy character games more and more these days...

And so, it's these games that need to be adapted; filmmakers need to be making sensible decisions if video game adaptations are to be taken seriously. Instead of capitalising on a highly commercially viable properties like Angry Birds...

... just try to make great original movies otherwise you're just wasting everyone's time and hurting the concept of 'video game adaptation'. Video game adaptations should be saved for the games that deserve it. Just like few will bother to adapt a book like The Catcher In The Rye or a poem by T.S Elliot, few should be making a Pac Man movie. I think there are great movies that can be made with this approach...

... but, we have to question the term adaptation when it comes to something like The Lego Movie. Without going down that avenue, let's come back to video games.

Some video games have something about them that needs to be turned into a movie. This is what we see with Red Dead Redemption: The Man From Blackwater. There is a good story in this game, and when it is allowed to play out as is, it works very well. This is because there is both a cinematic side to this game and a bias or disposition that anyone who has played it will bring in with them. This opens up an idea that blockbusters are no longer films that we explored with Suicide Squad, and, whilst this is an issue in many respects, I think the idea that some movies serve people can be embraced when it comes to video game adaptations. This means that video game movies would be linked to, or products of, games like Red Dead Redemption: The Man From Blackwater is, that garner a specific audience or act as additional content or canon. Following this approach, video game movies would develop a genre inside animation all of their own, one that establishes its own conventions and tropes - just as the musical or action film has.

The problem with character are story here would then be tackled as all that we love about a character, like John Marston, would be perfectly captured by the film - which would, in its simplest form, be tantamount to a montage of cut scenes. This kind of adaption does need to evolve, however, as Red Dead Redemption: The Man From Blackwater works as a short, but probably won't as an entire feature. To introduce more character and story, it'd be great to see parts of John's back story that we only hear about in the film as well as more of the action seen during gameplay. This would mean that we get a movie born from cut scenes, but one that transcends the game and adds to the experience of playing it.

So, to sum up, my proposal for making a more successful and viable breed of video game adaptations is as follows:

Embrace the conventions of the game itself by directly using its aesthetic 
Understand the difference between a cinematic and game space and possibly use this to experiment
Adapt games with already cinematic stories that can be improved and built upon in the feature
Establish a new style and genre of animation/film that sees cut scenes evolve 
Embrace niche audiences and the fact that some movies are no longer films 
Inter-cut gameplay into the movie, but turn it cinematic and showcase the hight of action capabale in a game scenario
Build from and tie directly into the game, but transcend the experience with a succinct focus on character and story

Whilst I don't think these should be the strict rules or the only kind of adaptations, I do believe, using Red Dead Redemption: The Man From Blackwater as evidence, that this is what's needed to kick start and establish the art of the video game in a cinematic realm. In short, filmmakers should experiment and explore the form of video game adaptation that we see in this Red Dead Redemption short; there shouldn't have been a jump straight into the likes of the 95 Mortal Kombat or 93 Super Mario Bros. Ultimately, I then think the term 'video game adaption' needs to be re-evaluated. It shouldn't mean live action and there shouldn't be much of an adaptation. There should just be 'video game movies' like this Red Dead Redemption short that expand to be more than just cut scenes.

These are my thoughts, what are yours? Do you think video game adaptations will ever work? Do you think there needs to be a different approach?

And if you want to read more on this subject that we didn't really touch on here, check out:

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Beyond The Mat - The Profession Of Childhood

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Bad - Who Knew???

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Beyond The Mat - The Profession Of Childhood

Quick Thoughts: Beyond The Mat (1999)

Just what it says on the box: an insight beyond the mat and ring of professional wrestling entertainment.

In the previous post, we looked at documentary, performance, actuality and questions of truth. The takeaway from delving into The Act Of Killing and Waltz With Bashir was that documentaries can hold significant power when they embrace their artifice and the performance of their subjects. In thinking about this subject, I gravitated towards a film I've seen before and a representative of a huge part of my childhood: Beyond The Mat and wrestling entertainment.

Growing up, wrestling a la the WWF was the only 'sport' I knew or would pay attention to. I never watched football, basketball, cricket, baseball, rugby, boxing, tennis - I always liked athletics and the Olympics - but, wrestling was it really until a few years ago when MMA caught my eye. And, to me, Beyond The Mat perfectly captures the draw of wrestling as entertainment as, whilst MMA can be considered the most base and primal of sports, wrestling is the entertainment equivalent. The draw of the WWF to a kid is then a mere extension of wrestling with friends, brothers or other family members. Whilst movies were the adult and professional projection of most games you'd play and imaginings you'd have, wrestling was the professional and 'adult' replication of play fighting. And Beyond The Mat makes a subtle commentary on this foundation - especially in the Mick Foley sequence.

I remember watching this match time and time again on video with my uncle, and, in initially seeing behind the scenes of this however many years ago, I was left shocked after recognising what Foley puts his body through. Whilst it's easy to be drawn to the gore and thrill of his pain-seeking masochism and get a sense of "Oh, he's actually in pain; bleeding; writhing", this is usually very intermittent. That is to say, the slight empathising with his pain is part of the match, but not much more; you forget about it quick. But, it's watching Beyond The Mat that you get a sense of the longevity of this pain, not just a few hours after the match as he's in hospital, but years down the line as veteran wrestlers face chronic knee injuries and a plethora of other torturous pain. And this is something picked up on excellently in The Wrestler - a film you get a strong sense was inspired by this documentary and many alike.

When re-watching Beyond The Mat, however, that wasn't the primary take away for me. Instead of the lasting pain and torment being the insight given into the lives of these wrestlers and the structure of the organisations, it was the motivation of these figures that really stuck out to me. It's despite the pain experienced, past, present and future, that these guys perform. And whilst I know I'll never really be able to grip just what it means to feel that incentive, thinking back to myself consuming hours of wrestling does help to contextualise what maybe goes through these guys' heads. As a child, I was seemingly drawn to the apparent profession of remaining a kid that all of these people were in. They all make money, sometimes $25, sometimes millions upon millions, just for play fighting. They take it up dozens of notches above what any 6-year-old is capable of, but there is still that 6-year-old's drive. This appeared as an interesting perspective to take on the masks, costumes, lights, music, terrible acting and stomp-punching, but also a wider idea of art, Hollywood and entertainment - one I'll leave as an open observation.

So, what are your thoughts? Where you ever into wrestling? Are you this guy...

And have you seen this film?

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Red Dead Redemption: The Man From Blackwater - How Do You Adapt A Video Game?

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