Virtual Actors, Spectacle and Special Effects in the Matrix Trilogy


[Credit for this post must be shared with a group of my final-year students at the University of Exeter. The assignment was to re-edit a piece of writing for re-publication online. I hadn’t tried this before, but wanted to experiment with collaborative work using Google docs. To begin with, I posted the first draft of an essay I wrote in 2003, the first book chapter I ever had published (the finished product had ended up in The Matrix Trilogy: Cyberpunk Reloaded, edited by Stacy Gillis and published by Wallflower Press in 2005). The task was to re-edit a 6000-word essay to about half that length, correcting errors, adding web-links and images, removing academic jargon and generally formatting it for an online readership (however they might interpret such a thing). There were 28 students on the module, and each had access to the document – the only rules were that other students’ edits should be respected: if you wished to change something that had already been reworded, you should add a comment to say why. The integrity, argument, grammar, tone and style of the original text demanded no such respect, and was to be disregarded completely. Almost every sentence has been altered in some way. More than 3000 words have been excised, either by making my youthful, eagerly excessive prose more succinct, or by hacking out wholesale paragraphs that distracted from the central argument. I wouldn’t want to have them treat another writer’s work in this way, and the essay was mostly concerned with close reading, clarifying an argument, addressing a different audience and working collaboratively, so in future, I’ll give this another go and divide students into smaller groups and let them work together to build a blog post from the ground up rather than just cleaning up my old messes. It was a very interesting process to watch, and I hope they also found it productive/instructive. The results are posted below.]
Film studies once saw special effects as extrinsic to narrative progression; more often than not, spectacle was seen as eye-candy for the benefit of viewers unable to concentrate without pyrotechnics. Whilst visual spectacle can be used as a fig leaf to hide the shame of substandard storytelling, critics such as Michele Pierson and Norman Klein  have seen  special effects as an integral component of commercial cinema, rather than as a side-effect of its perceived deterioration. In addition, Hollywood’s gleeful embrace of digital technologies for the production of photorealistic computer-generated imagery (CGI) since the early 1990s has promoted a simulationist aesthetic that has caught the attention of postmodern audiences more than hubcap UFOs and rubber dinosaurs ever could. In the Matrix trilogy, we see not so much a striving to stultify and patronise the cinema audience with immersive sights, and more a special effects agenda which connects text with context, image with apparatus. The Wachowskis’ films deploy almost the entire panoply of available effects, including digital matte paintings, miniature models and prosthetic make-up.  We will here concentrate on one particular scene from The Matrix: Reloaded – the sequence which has come to be known as ‘The Burly Brawl’. This scene allows the viewer to observe the full mobilisation of virtual actors in computer-generated backgrounds, and places the human cast in conflict with digital doubles. Consistency is maintained across the Matrix trilogy through the integration of narrative and spectacle. It makes logical sense that the plot oscillates between two separate environments, the first (the Matrix) seductively illusory and the other (the ‘real’ world) inhospitably solid. Neo finds that he has been plugged into the reconfigured post-apocalyptic planet, and that what he thought of as his body was a digital avatar of his excorporeated mind. The view from inside the Matrix provides the spectator with all of the films’ comforting filmic pleasures (the spatio-temporal manipulations of bullet-time, fetish-fashion, indestructibility and choreographed violence) – what Jeffrey Sconce calls a “hipster playground of high-action and high-fashion” (204) – while the real world is a harsh and hungry wasteland. The virtual world of the Matrix asserts its authenticity by conforming to physical laws, resulting in an environment grounded in what Stephen Prince terms perceptual realism: that distinctive facet of CGI which aligns it with photorealism by virtue of its detailed textural resemblance to its referent, but which enables it to create impossible objects, locations and characters by virtue of its extreme malleability; CGI thus creates visual images which are “referentially fictional but perceptually realistic” (32). The photorealistic aesthetic of digital effects have led to a popular belief that digital imaging technologies are about to usher in a new age of absolute simulation where the filmed and generated are indistinguishable. It is assumed that complete immersion is the ultimate goal, however, digital special effects perform two functions; to create convincing illusory worlds and to make itself known, allowing the spectator to question its construction as well as its evolution from previous imaging techniques. But budgets are wasted if expensive special effects go unnoticed. Visual spectacle asks spectators to marvel at the comparison of it with the ‘real’. The discrepancy between them is the space in which visual effects can be understood by the spectator, and though it might be a gap narrowed by photorealism, extra-textual reference points help to preserve its integrity. Each component of the Matrix franchise is linked to the whole by a series of digressive pathways. At one level these can be narrative-based connections – in The Final Flight of the Osiris from The Animatrix, Jue posts a message from within the Matrix which arrives in the diegetic space of The Matrix: Reloaded, while the computer game Enter the Matrix features a narrative thread that intersects with that of Reloaded. At another level, the digressions point to the apparatus behind their production. More than most film cycles, The Matrix has fostered a network of discursive articles, behind-the-scenes footage, fan fiction, crew interviews and on-set photographs all clustered around the mainframe of an official website. Barbara Klinger describes spectators taking ‘digressive pathways’, raging from “generic or narrative intertexts that school the spectator in dramatic conventions, to a host of promotional forms … that arm the spectator with background information”(4). The digressive principle is demonstrated nowhere more explicitly than in the ‘Follow the White Rabbit’ feature on the Matrix and Matrix: Revolutions DVDs, which prompts the viewer to exit the film and watch behind-the-scenes footage of the production techniques used in the making of a particular sequence. The white rabbit motif, borrowed from the film itself, signifies the first step in Neo’s voyage of awakening to the true nature of the Matrix. Its use on the DVD creates a correlation between the story and the product that contains it.

The proliferation of behind-the-scenes material and revelation of the technologies behind the effects offsets any conviction in the illusion suggested by photorealistic CGI. At the most cynical level, this is in the service of selling DVDs with the promise of privileged secrets, or of attracting hits to members-only sections of websites, but it also keeps the spectator engaged with the diegetic technologies as reflections or extrapolations of extra-filmic developments in digital imaging. Consequently, by finding new ways to engage with the profilmic aspects of the Matrix trilogy, the spectator becomes an active participant in the process of reinforcing the illusion of virtual reality offered by the trilogy’s diegesis. The spectator’s desire to enter the virtual world encountered onscreen is made possible through the paratextual features found on the DVD release, which situate the film as merely one medium by which the Matrix may be explored; indeed, as Chuck Tryon has noted, ‘the film itself serves primarily as a means of stimulating interest in the wider media franchise, one that extends well beyond the DVD itself into other ancillary materials’ (29). The digressive aspects of the film serve to preserve the function of special effects to draw attention to themselves without necessitating compromises in technical clarity and perceptual realism.

The Burly Brawl

The Burly Brawl’ refers to a scene midway through Reloaded in which Neo fights an ever-expanding army of Smiths, the rogue agent who has acquired the ability to clone himself. Initiated by a scuffle with a few agent replicas, the scene employs special effects to primarily remove wires and to digitally graft Agent Smith’s visage on to the faces of each stunt performer. As Neo is called upon to parry the attacks of increasing number Smiths, so the visual effects are required to replace more of the combatants with computer-generated doubles. This challenges the spectator to discern the points at which the switches occur, urging the viewer to contemplate the discrepancy between real and rendered.
The scene also serves self-consciously as a showcase for ‘Virtual Cinematography,’ the conglomeration of digitally-rendered bodies and backgrounds offering a theoretically unlimited number of shooting angles within that virtual space. Before ‘Virtual Cinematography’ became the technical buzzword surrounding the films, The Matrix offered its viewers the signature visual trope of ‘bullet-time,’ an effect of camera movement within ultra-slow motion which, despite occupying no more than twenty seconds of screen time in the first film, was instrumental in establishing the film as technically innovative. In bullet-time effects, the human subject is first recorded against a green screen by the rig of up to 120 cameras set to shoot in rapid sequence, providing a series of still images of the action (see Figure 1) Such a novel, seemingly unique effect might be seen as working against the intertextual digressions we have suggested are prompted by the appearance of a technical illusion – how does the spectator find an intertext for something that has never been witnessed before?
Bolter and Grusin have argued that new media forms exist only in relation to earlier configurations of techniques and technologies (50). The innovative bullet-time sequences used in the Matrix trilogy are a recent illustration of existing technologies narrativised and branded as a novel visual spectacle. Another example is The Campanile Movie (1997), Paul Debevec’s 150-second fly-by of the Berkeley campus (see video above), where textures of the buildings captured from still photographs were mapped onto three dimensional representations of their actual geometry thereby allowing the creation of virtual backdrops into which the human subjects could be composited.Similarly, Dayton Taylor’s ‘Timetrack’ camera rig, which had been patented in 1997 and tested on several television commercials, sired the means of capturing the ultra-slow motion foreground action; we could even trace such multi-camera experiments as far back as the motion studies conducted in California in the 1870s by Eadweard Muybridge (right),“the man who split the second,” as Rebecca Solnit would have it (7). Even though the vast majority of viewers would not have had prior knowledge of these experiments in the history of remediation, it is unlikely that they had never experienced the kinds of hyperbolic spatio-temporal manipulations they inspired. If the Matrix films give the impression of novelty, it is only an illusion created by the prolific remediation of a wide variety of pop cultural reference points; they have appropriated certain qualities of kung fu films, comic book visuals, anime compositions and anti-corporate nu-metal posturing, technologised as if to proclude their imposition upon the new texts. The early version of bullet-time was not fully virtualised because it required detailed pre-planning from conceptual drawings by comic book illustrators Steve Skroce and Geof Darrow (Lamm 8) to computer-generated pre-visualisations of shots, followed by strict adherence to those plans at the shooting stage. The virtual camera was constrained, its very virtuality a cunning illusion. In one piece of explication/publicity, visual effects supervisor John Gaeta promises that the sequels’ virtual cinematography was more advanced, allowing the construction of shots to be devised regardless of camera position and possible lines of movement:

We wanted to create scenes that were not in any way restricted by physical placement of cameras. … We wanted longer, flowing shots that built action to a level where the interactions of bodies would be so complex there would be no way that we could properly conceive of the cameras during shooting. Instead, we would create the master template for the choreography, and then have complete flexibility to compose shots in postproduction.’ (quoted in Fordham 87)

Gaeta claims that the virtual camera technology was supposed to mirror the way the technology in the film created an enforced hallucination in the Matrix whilst existence continued outside of it. The Matrix films thematise technology in ways which are not unfamiliar within discourses around science fiction and cyberpunk cinema, but the visual effects serve to knit the components of the franchise together as a transmedia experience, and go beyond the usual spectacular functionings of such illusions to solidify the connections between the diegetic and extra-filmic technologies. For instance, the presence of virtual actors within the films is more than a technical anomaly necessitated by the limits of human performance, but a fully integrated trope mobilising discursive elements within and without the text. The virtual actor was also the result of discussions of superhumanism between the Wachowskis and John Gaeta: “Within the Matrix, everything is really a state of mind, a mental self-actualization of your abilities. We wanted to visually depict that power, simulating events that Neo was part of.” (quoted in Fordham 86)

Virtual Actors and Cinematic Bodies

It would be easy to believe that the age of the synthespian is imminent, and that soon human actors will interact with computer-generated co-stars without the audience realising which is which. Will Anielewicz, a senior animator at effects house Industrial Light and Magic, promised recently that “Within five years, the best actor is going to be a digital actor” (quoted in Baylis). The apotheosis of an animated character into an artificially intelligent, fully simulacrous figure indistinguishable from its human referent is technically impossible, at least in the foreseeable future, but visual effects are not definitive renderings of a character or event, but indicators of ‘the state-of-the-art’ offering “a hint of what is likely to come” (Kerlow 1) in the field of visual illusions in the future. It is understandable that such a competitive industry needs to maintain interest in the potential of its products, but the mythos of the virtual actor has pervaded the Hollywood blockbuster in recent years; however, whereas in the pastthe computer-generated body had to fit into the diegesis unobtrusively, more recent films such as Avatar have moved away from the dichotomy of human and synthespian by fusing the marvels of CGI with the gestures, expressions and voices of real actors, creating immersive virtual worlds in which there is no tell-tale seam between illusion and reality. The seamless nature of this combination is still reliant on the actor’s performance to bridge the gap between the virtual and the actual by providing the digital body with a soul.

The Animatrix also explores uses of the virtual body – the CGI striptease which opens The Final Flight of the Osiris announces itself as ‘advanced’ by lingering on detailed surfaces of athletic bodies in action, drawing focus onto the technology which created it.Keen-eyed viewers might notice that Jue exhibits what might be the world’s first sighting of CG cellulite – the markings of a true body without the idealised gloss of airbrushed skin. Thus the desire for computers to create an ever more realistic “digital actor” has developed to include the imperfections of the human body. Jue’s movements were created from a combination of motion-capture from live actors, and ‘key-frame’ animation directed by computer animators. Unlike other CGI/human constructs such as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy or Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace, in The Matrix trilogy, the virtual body provides a visual articulation of posthuman transcendence which confers fantastic capabilities upon the diegetic body and simultaneously imagines a liberated future for the cinematic body. No longer constrained by the limitations of the recording medium, the director is free to experiment with techniques such as ‘bullet time’ and the ‘virtual camera’ in order to present us with a world that, whilst clearly impossible in its flouting of the laws of physics or the death-defying stunts of its characters, nonetheless derives verisimilitude from its status as an autonomous entity; though impossible in our world, the removal of the spectator to a new, often techno-futurist reality eliminates the awkward juxtaposition of real/illusory as we struggle to reconcile what our eyes tell us with what our mind knows about the world we inhabit.Neo takes on the properties of a digitally cinematic body – he is preternaturally fast, fluid and precise in his movements. Through centring Neo in the onscreen action (Figure 2) and the use of digital effects (notably slow motion), Neo becomes both a powerful character within the story of a digital simulation and also a star perfomer within a filmic space. We could say that he is becoming synergised – he can assume the capacities of a computer game sprite or a synthespian, replicable and spectacular just by virtue of his very existence (as opposed to by virtue of what he actually does). His individual skill sets are downloaded as if they were applications for a smart phone, and it is within the realm of the Matrix that characters can use these skills to manipulate their bodies and appearances (what Morpheus calls “residual self image”), enabling them to become glamourised upgrades of their organic forms, which are prostrate elsewhere, grimy and linen-clad. The digital avatar, built from motion capture data, is a cinematic prosthesis which enables the performer to enact cinematisation directly, rather than through the use of tactical editing and careful composition which can, for instance, hide the face of a stunt double. The Brawl toys with viewers’ expectations about how an action sequence usually has to work around the limitations of the body. Virtual camera moves are only recognisable as such because we are familiar with where and how a camera can and cannot be moved.

When asked about similarities between the Burly Brawl and the climactic battle between the Bride and the Crazy 88 gang in his Kill Bill Volume I (2003), Quentin Tarantino was keen to distance himself from such “CGI bullshit,” even though his fight scene is as much a cinematic construction as any in the Matrix: “You know, my guys are all real. There’s no computer fucking around. I’m sick to death of all that shit. This is old school, with fucking cameras. If I’d wanted all that computer game bullshit, I’d have gone home and stuck my dick in my Nintendo” (quoted in Dinning 91). Tarantino objects to the over-use of CGI, but forgets that one of the reasons for the deployment of such “profane” digital imagery in the Matrix films is precisely for the purposes of differentiation from the films to which it refers (or pays homage). Yuen Woo-Ping served as a martial arts advisor on both the Kill Bill and the Matrix series, but the combat between Neo and Smith represents a dramatic remediation of the choreography for which he is renowned, rather than the generic authenticity for which he was enlisted by Tarantino. The Burly Brawl is built up from a series of actions appropriated from the kung fu film’s generic database, hyperbolised, digitised and virtualised. David Bordwell refers to the kung fu film’s use of “expressive amplification,” whereby “film style magnifies the emotional dynamics of the performance” (232). Therefore, combatants in kung fu films can appear to fight with superhuman speed (under-cranking the camera during shooting makes the projected film run slightly faster), skill (supporting wires can help them to defy gravity) and strength (power powder sprinkled on clothing, coupled with sound effects, accentuates the visual and sonic impact of a blow). The Brawl remediates what Bordwell terms the “one-by-one tracking shot,” a technique of cinematic authentication through which a fighter is shown moving through a group of combatants in a continuous take. The length of the unedited shot cues the spectator to accept that the performer is demonstrating a sustained sequence of skills. During the Burly Brawl, two such shots occur, the first performed by Keanu Reeves and a group of stunt performers, the second by his digital double. Subjecting the real and virtual bodies to the same modes of mediation helps foster the viewer’s fascination with a discrepancy between the two. Throughout the Brawl, the spectator is incited to distinguish between them, just as the kung fu fanatic will inspect the text for evidence of the star’s authenticity or replacement by a diegetically anomalous but technically necessitated stunt double. The trilogy constructs a dialectic between old and new by remediating kung fu motifs and visual stylings; for instance, the pedagogic dojo fight sequence, wirework and choreographed combat. When Keanu’s digital copy flies through the air, the illusion is distinct because the virtual body is unfettered by the need for physical reference – wirework always exhibits the body’s need for balanced weight distribution, providing its distinctive, super-real look.
The Matrix films have presented a series of postulations on the past and future of special effects. Virtual cinematography is defined in relation to earlier, less technologised forms of cinema (kung fu, anime) by remediating their motifs of physical or animated display in the service of a technological spectacle. However, it also offers a ‘utopian’ idea of a cinema free from the tethers of indexicality and practical constraints. This liberation is reflected in Neo’s empowerment as a virtualised body, free from the gravitational and physical restrictions of the real world.One must keep in mind though, that since this fiction always exists as a redesigning of existing reference points, the concept of virtual cinematography is, for the time being, only an illusion of what the future holds. The spectator is empowered with mastery of the film text by a profusion of textual exit points, which offer the chance to observe the spectacle from a remove that reveals its artificiality, while simultaneously celebrating the seductive force of its artifice.

Bibliography

  • Baylis, Paul. “Weekend Beat: In quest of the ‘holy grail’ of the truly lifelike digital actor.” 7 June 2003.
  • Bordwell, David. Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment. Harvard: Harvard UP, 2000.
  • Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000.
  • Buckland, Warren. “Between Science Fact and Science Fiction: Spielberg’s Digital Dinosaurs, Possible Worlds, and the New Aesthetic Realism.” Screen 40:2 (Summer 1999): 177-192.
  • Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.
  • Dinning, Mark. “The Big Boss.” Empire 14:11 (November 2003): 84-92.
  • Fordham, Joe. “Neo Realism.” Cinefex 95 (October 2003): 84-127.
  • Hunt, Leon. Kung Fu Cult Masters. London: Wallflower, 2003.
  • Kerlow, Isaac V. “Virtual CG Characters in Live-Action Feature Movies.” 19 November 2003.
  • Klein, Norman M. The Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects. New York : The New Press, 2004.
  • Klinger, Barbara. “Digressions at the Cinema: Reception and Mass Culture.” Cinema Journal 28:4 (Summer 1989): 3-19.
  • Lamm, Spencer, ed. 2000. The Art of The Matrix. New York : Newmarket Press.
  • Pierson, Michele. Special Effects: Still in Search of Wonder. New York : Columbia UP, 2002.
  • Prince, Stephen. “True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images and Film Theory.” Film Quarterly 49:3 (Spring 1996): 27-37.
  • Sconce, Jeffrey. Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television. Durham: Duke UP, 2000.
  • Sellors, Paul C. “The Impossibility of Science Fiction: Against Buckland’s Possible Worlds.” Screen 41:2 (Summer 2000): 203-216.
  • Solnit, Rebecca. Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.
  • Wood, Aylish. “Timespaces in Spectacular Cinema: Crossing the Great Divide of Spectacle Versus Narrative.” Screen 43:4 (Winter 2002): 370-386.

Screed for Speed


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Had there ever been a film that so succinctly enacted its high concept than Speed? [See end of post for some notes on “high concept”] It’s so precisely executed that I can’t even decide whether I like it or not – all the adjectives I reach for are double-edged admirations of its “efficiency”. In case you need a reminder, the idea is this: a former bomb disposals expert (Dennis Hopper), thwarted in his attempt to extort money by threatening to kill a lift full of hostages, plants a bomb on a bus that will explode if the vehicle’s speed drops below 50mph. LAPD SWAT guy Jack Traven (named after B. Traven, mysterious pseudonymised writer of Treasure of the Sierra Madre) has the task of keeping the bus moving and plotting a solution while passenger Annie (Sandra Bullock) takes the wheel. The third act (each act built around a different hostage situation) sees Annie kidnapped and strapped with explosives on a brakeless subway train. In short, the film generates situations of “suspense” out of a literal, downright Newtonian articulation of that word: a an elevator hung on insecure cables threatening to plummet, a bus maintaining constant velocity against a succession of solid impediments and gravitational pulls, hanging slo-moed in the air as it makes an impossible leap  across a gulf in the road, a train performing the opposite action of trying to slow to a halt (and landing, self-reflexively outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, where that other epic of vehicular trajectory, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is showing).

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Mapped onto the skeleton of these machinically structured sequences is a burgeoning romance between the two leads, borne perfunctorily out of the intensity of the situations (they even say so themselves). The forward thrust of bus and train force them (twice) into hurtling embraces, as if trajectories of plot and object are perfectly twinned. The multicultural group of passengers are mainly there as ballast for the bus, fodder for the threat, and to utter expressions of amazement designed to prompt and voice the expected audience responses: “This guy is nuts!”, “This is not a good plan!”, “What?!”, “You gotta be kidding!” (actually, I can’t remember whether or not anyone says that, but I’m gonna take a guess) or, directed knowingly at Keanu/Jack, “You’re not very bright but you got some big round hairy cojones” (if only the marketing department could have worked that line into the title…). The film’s every machination is manouevred into frame by the simplicity of its concept, stated out loud by Hopper’s terrorist, as if it were not clear enough, when he details “the rules” – the bus’s bomb-rigged structure is a promise of non-stop action, a promise of shark-like relentlessness: if it stops moving, it dies. Terrorist plot = narrative conceit.

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What happened to transform Dennis Hopper from countercultural icon of the New Hollywood cinema into perfect casting for a deranged terrorist? Or maybe it was never such a stretch from cinema’s edgiest biker-hippie in Easy Rider to a guy over the edge entertaining himself by placing elaborate booby traps in the Man’s own modes of transport – elevators, buses, trains. The cause just got a little confused along the way. This was the 1990s, back when terrorism was a consequence free plot-device perpetrated by disillusioned white guys out of step with society but at least highly rational and precise in their plotting. As Sandra Bullock asks at one point: “What did we do, bomb the guy’s country or something?” “No”, replies Keanu, “It’s just a guy who wants money.” But Speed refuses to go there on some of the dilemma’s terrorist threats; despite an early reference to “shooting the hostage” to save the rest of the endangered citizens, Keanu never has to make that choice, never has to flatten the schoolkids on the crossing, and the pram the bus crushes turns out to be full of tin cans. This film doesn’t deliver grotesque or shocking thrills, as Richard Dyer writes:

Speed teasingly draws back from delivering such an experience, even when it titillates us with the promise that it’s about to show us a white, middle-class mother and baby smashed to smithereens. […] Speed largely avoids giving us time to note death: there are innocent bystanders knocked off and some police, but by and large the film is oddly benign. Old ladies petrified to leap from leaps, babies in prams, poor commuters of colour on the unstoppable bus, such people are safe in Speed, not expendable as they might be in many other films. The price is elsewhere, in things. It is the transport system itself that is smashed about: cars, lorries, barriers, planes and even the roadway in a final eruption of a subway train from below. It is an orgy of destruction of one of the great frustrations of modern urban living – getting about.

Many of the films set-pieces are dependent on the workings of machines, the red-hot friction of careening metal, the tenacious but faltering grip of overladen cables, the disconnection of wires from bombs, overheated conversations over telecommunication systems, all measured by numeric displays, speedometers and time pressures. The strained disintegration of metal and plastic pushed to its limits, of vehicles on the verge of breaking down and/or up, is a nice metaphor for the machinic construction of Speed, with its single-entendre title, minimal dialogue and set-piece simplicity.

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Notes:

Justin Wyatt on “high concept”, from his 1994 book High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood:

The term “high concept” originated in the television and film industries, but it was soon adopted by the popular presses, who seized the term as an indictment of Hollywood’s privileging those films which seemed most likely to reap huge dollars at the box office. Clearly the studios are most interested in those films with an increased likelihood of  a solid return, and high concept has been used as one catchphrase to describe any number of commericial projects. […] According to the folklore of the entertainment industry, high concept as a term was first associated with Barry Diller, during his tenure in the early 1970s as a programming executive at ABC. Diller received much credit for bolstering the network’s poor ratings, partly through the introduction of the made-for-television movie format. Since Diller needed stories which could be easily summarised for a thirty-second television spot, he approved those projects which could be sold in a single sentence.  This sentence woud then appear in the advertising spots and in TV Guide synopses. […] Disney president Jeffrey Katzenberg, on the other hand, attributes the term high concept to Michael Eisner. According to Katzenberg, Eisner used high concept while working as a creative executive at Paramount  to describe a unique idea whose originality could be conveyed briefly. Similarly, Columbia Pictures Entertainment president Peter Guber defines high concept in narrative terms. Rather than stressing the uniqueness of the idea, Guber states that high concept can be understood as a narrative which is very straightforward, easily communicated and easily comprehended. The emphasis on narrative as the driving force behind high concept masks another aspect to the usage of the term within both the film and television industries. While the idea must be easily communicated and summarised, the concept must also be marketable in two significant ways: through the initial “pitch” for the project, and through the marketing, the “pitch” to the public.

An article by Steve Kaire at the Writers Store, “High Concept Defined Once and For All“, offers some advice on how to write a good high concept pitch. These are the five suggested requirements:

YOUR PREMISE SHOULD BE ORIGINAL AND UNIQUE: In seeking originality, we are not talking about reinventing the wheel. We can take traditional subject matter that’s been done before and add a hook or twist to it which then qualifies the material as original. Using the kidnapping plot, there have been dozens of films which covered that subject area before. In the film Ransom, Mel Gibson plays a wealthy businessman whose son is kidnapped. That story in itself offers nothing new. The hook of the movie which makes it original is that instead of paying the ransom, Gibson uses the ransom money to pay for a contract hit on the kidnappers. That twist makes the film original and therefore High Concept.

YOUR STORY HAS TO HAVE MASS AUDIENCE APPEAL: That means it’s possible to meet Requirement #1 by creating an original story that’s never been done before. But that story may be so odd or strange that the appeal exists only in the mind of the writer who created it. No one else. An example would be if a girl woke up one morning, turned into a butterfly, and flew to the land of Shangri-La. That’s never been done before but who cares? Mass appeal means that nine out of ten people who you pitch your story to would say that they’d pay ten dollars to see your movie first run based solely on your pitch. You have to decide either you’re writing for your own enjoyment or you’re writing to sell. If it’s to sell, then you have to take the marketplace into account.

YOUR PITCH HAS TO BE STORY SPECIFIC: That means that within your pitch, you have to have specific details which make your story different and adds color and depth. Let’s take the bank robbing plot. If you came up with a story about three people who want to rob a bank by digging a tunnel underneath it, the response would be, “So what?” A twist on that genre is the movie Going In Style. It’s about three senior citizens who attempt to rob a bank. The wheelman has had his license revoked, the lookout is visually impaired, and the brains of the operation is 75-year-old George Burns. Those specific details enhance the story and keep it from being stale and generic.

THE POTENTIAL IS OBVIOUS: If you’re pitching a comedy, then the potential for humor should be obvious within your pitch. People should smile or laugh when you tell it. If you’re pitching an action movie, the listener should be able to imagine the action scenes in his head as your pitching. I sold a project to Miramax called My Kind of Town with the Wayans Brothers attached to star. It is about two guys who want to make a new start in life. They pack up their car and take off with no particular destination in mind. Entering City Hall in some tiny Southern town to get a map, the roof collapses on them and they sue. They win the lawsuit but the town can’t afford to pay them so they’re given the town. The potential for humor is obvious when the Wayans Brothers are given a Southern town to do whatever they please with it.

YOUR PITCH SHOULD BE ONE TO THREE SENTENCES LONG: I’ve had thousands of projects pitched to me in over twenty years and writers mistakenly think that the longer the pitch, the better the story. No one wants to listen to a pitch that’s a half hour long when I could read the script in less time. I tell writers “Pitch me your story in a couple of sentences.” Most cannot because they don’t know what the five requirements are and lack the practice in condensing and fine-tuning their pitches in advance.