One of the perplexing things to me is how so many Hollywood eggs are placed in so few baskets. It's a large-scale mass-production industry, but in the quest for bigger and bigger tentpoles, there is a blandness and safety that sands down the edges and makes it all ok. Wouldn't a better investment be to make 10 bolder and smaller 25 million-dollar films that could develop more talent and audiences than one film that can't take any chances? Sadly it seems that we'll be seeing fewer standalone films, more safe and obvious comedies, and more superheroes and series over the next decade or so. Hollywood doesn't know what to do, so they are playing it very safe.

Tilda Swinton in Bong Joon Ho's Snowpiercer

Tilda Swinton in Bong Joon Ho's Snowpiercer

The most interesting and exciting films for me in the summer this year are the small indies like Obvious Child, the unsettling Under the Skin, the ambitious allegorical Snowpiercer, or the intriguing sci-fi action film Edge of Tomorrow. But they're not the films that most people are seeing in the theatres and most people will see them on smaller screens at home.

So many of the conversations about blockbuster films focus on how newer films do something a bit better than the previous instalment or how they fix some of the problems from earlier versions of the series. The obsession with continuity is fascinating and it's interesting in that it seems to be important to people. With the most recent Star Trek reboot, it exists in a world that is parallel to the first series of films which has resulted in some convoluted plotting. It's a franchise or series thing. Just in the same way that you can go in to McDonalds or Starbucks and know what will be on the menu and what to expect, a film series needs to hit certain beats, include characters and situations that we have come to expect. It can be done cleverly and with skill as with the Cornetto Trilogy, or mostly ignored as the James Bond films do.

The unspoken issue at the core of much of this is that time passes and we all grow older. If you want to have an action hero jumping around being believable you need to have younger actors and if you are going to be making a series of films over a decade or two, you're going to have to replace some actors unless you show them growing older. With the most recent X-Men film, X-Men: Days of Future Past, they brought together most of the actors from two different versions of the films and it was great to see older and younger actors together, but it resulted in a lot of actors standing around not doing much at all. Logistically you want to maximize the use of actors with the constraints of a contract and schedule, so that's why you'll have bigger actors appearing two or three scenes in one location. It's easier to shoot and fast.

Instead of leaving the audience wanting more, we're given more and more and more. The Bond films would tease with "James Bond will return in..." with the name of the next film. Some characters would return, but there was an almost delightful disregard of continuity with different actors playing characters with absolutely no explanation of why they had changed. Felix Leiter was played by many different actors and it's fun to see how often they have changed him (but Bond always recognizes him).

Money is at the core of it all and it always has been. It's a business and the way that the art and the money are balanced is a challenge that is faced constantly. How do you give people what they want and have films that people will pay to see and keep it interesting. If you ask people what they want and give them exactly what they ask for they may not like it because it's a challenge to describe what you really want. The classic example in the soft drink world is New Coke which was very carefully researched based on the flavour. Apparently one of the goals with New Coke was to win in Pepsi Challenge taste tests. That happened with New Coke, but our relationship with products is complex, and people don't seem to like change, so the new formula was a failure and 2 1/2 months after it was introduced in North America, the Coca Cola Company had Coca Cola Classic bring back the original formula.

Many film series now have a secondary goal to maximize the investments in the franchise. So if you can get people interested in the earlier and future instalments it means that it's a better and safer investment. That's why the casts of so many films are large and the plots can get a bit complex as well. It's to hit as many of the potential profit-making opportunities as possible. It also plays on the nostagia of older audience members who have seen the earlier versions of the films. It's a form of selling out, which is also at the core of filmmaking. The question is really what is the price and what compromises need to be made in order to make the film.

In earlier, old-Hollywood films would be remade often based on new casts. Musicals reworked songs and plots constantly. Hitchcock remade a few of his films and many silent films were remade as talkies and then remade in colour. Foreign films are often remade to avoid subtitles and directors from around the world always have gone to Hollywood to make bigger films within the studio system, adding their own flourishes to the larger machine.

Fandom is a huge part of the marketing of films now and the endless advance speculation and teasing of images, posters, trailers, and trailers for trailers begin years before a film comes out. It changes the way that films are made and how they are written. In addition to the goal of making a film with a compelling story, there are other requirements to have secondary characters or plots introduced. This means that actors may commit to potential 6 or 9 films as that character. The contracts are worth millions of dollars, so all those investments must be maximized, so it means that the plots need to incorporate them. Then they have to work in some product placement which adds some more lines to colour within.

This isn't new and if you look at the history of Hollywood there have been all sorts of similar constraints. With the Motion Picture Production Code, many films were changed to meet the requirements. I recently watched Fritz Lang's dark film noir, The Woman in the Window which has an appropriately dark ending, which is completely undermined by a coda that Wizard of Oz-style recontextualizes the film as a dream. The modern equivalent is the Marvel coda which establishes the next film in the series, which makes the film that you've just seen and paid for into an ad for the next one (which will be better).

But the market is cruel and people are paying to see the sequels and the franchises so we will get more. Not films that we really love, but ones that we accept as being one of a series that we need to keep watching to see them get a bit better each time. It's sad that more original films that work within the blockbuster paradigm and push things a little bit like The Edge of Tomorrow or Pacific Rim don't do as well. They're more interesting to me and more entertaining, but they're a bit more challenging to watch and play with expectations more (and have slightly stronger roles for female protagonists who aren't love interests). They do eventually find an audience over a bit more time with people surprised at how much they liked that film that not many people saw. The sad thing is that with those films making less money than the safer, product-placement-heavy, and familiar character-filled films, it means that fewer chances will be taken in the future as the recycling of films and plots continues.

Posted
AuthorChris Campbell
Categoriesfilm

We didn't make it to the top.

A few weeks ago my friend Diane suggested a weekend trip to Mount Carleton in northern New Brunswick to hike up the tallest mountain in the Maritime provinces. I'd never been to the provincial park there and was keen to go to a place of New Brunswick where I had never been. So the plans were made and a cabin booked (since I like the idea of camping, but not necessarily setting up the tent and sleeping in it).

In the days leading up to the trip the weather was checked often. It looked good for a long time but then Hurricane Arthur) showed up. The track looked as though it would keep most of the effects away from the mountain, so the trip stayed on. The path changed a bit the day before, but the forecast still was for some rain and a bit of wind.

Mount Carleton Provincial Park is located in an isolated part of New Brunswick. So isolated and preserved that there is no cell service or power lines in the park, so it is a really great way to disconnect. It's been a long time since I disconnected for even a day or so, and this was really nice as it forces you to be in the moment and look and listen to the world around you.

The park is beautiful and we arrived on a Friday afternoon just before dark. The heritage cabins are log cabins that feature a kitchenette with running water, a propane stove and oven, a full-size refrigerator, as well as a full bathroom with shower. So it wasn't roughing it all. The cabin was close to Lake Nictau which is a lovely, long lake at the bottom of Mount Sagamook. The trail for that mountain is a short walk from the cabin, but we came for Mount Carleton and on Saturday we went to the front gate (where they have Wi-Fi) to check the weather and see what the conditions were going to be for the day.

The forecast from 11am called for rain with a bit of wind, but nothing too strong, so we set out for Mount Carleton which is located at the end of a narrow dirt road. Part way down the road there was a birch tree across the road. I was able to use a broken branch as a lever to move the tree out of the way so we could pass. There weren't any other trees down and the rest of the drive was uneventful. A light rain was falling and with good socks and sturdy hiking boots and waterproof gear in place we set out up the easier way to the top which is a 4.4 km hike.

The enchanting and terrifying part of hiking on the trails in Mount Carleton is that it is peaceful and quiet and isolated. While we saw a car in the parking lot at the bottom of the mountain, we didn't see anyone else on the hike. At the top there is a shelter, but nobody is stationed there. The park has regular patrols on the roads and it's good practice to sign in at the bottom of each trail and to also let someone know where you are going and what your expected timeline is. But being in an area without cell phone service can be disconcerting as the usual quick checking of the weather forecast (or tweeting) can't happen. If that was possible we would have seen that the path of the tropical storm had changed and that it was going right up through New Brunswick.

It's a beautiful, tree-covered hike up the mountain. The branches provided some shelter from the rain as we ascended. As we went there was more and more water running onto the trail. About halfway up there was a steady stream of water covering the trail which intensified the further up we went. Close to the top there is a shelter and at that point the trail was completely covered with a heavy flow of water. It looked like a river and at that point the decision was made to turn back as it didn't feel safe.

The rain kept falling and the wind picked up and we heard trees and branches breaking and falling as we hiked down. A couple of branches and trees fell across the trail, so we had to climb over them. It was very wet and I'm so glad that I had good socks and boots as they kept me comfortable the whole way. My iPhone was nicely ensconced in a waterproof case that allowed me to take some pictures along the way to document the experience.

Arriving at the parking lot after the hike down was a relief. The trail near the bottom now was also covered with water, so it was definitely getting worse. We took off our gear and got in the car to head back to the cabin along the dirt road as the rain fell and the wind blew. A few minutes down the road there were a couple of newly-fallen trees completely blocking the way out. These were too big to push out of the way, so we turned the car around and went back to the parking lot to wait for the patrol. After a half hour or so a pickup truck with flashing lights on came up the road followed by another pickup truck. They said that it took them an hour to get down the road and they cleared about 13 trees along the way.

We headed out following them down the road and seeing broken and fallen trees all along the way. We needed to stop four or five more times on the way out as they took out the chainsaw and cleared trees from the road that had blocked it again. These were trees that had fallen in the past 15 minutes, so the weather was definitely getting worse. Luckily none of the roads back to the cabin were washed out, so arriving back was very nice and the cabin had power and firewood, so the day was ended with a warm fire in the wood stove and good meal.

The next morning was sunny and beautiful. Probably a good day for a hike, so we drove out to the base of Mount Carleton again to see if we could make it up. On the way there we saw another patrol and they let us know that all the trails were closed due to the number of trees down and the flooding. We turned around and headed to the main gate to check out. We found out that the park had been closed the day before a couple of hours after we arrived back at the cabin. But there were a couple of smaller trails open and that Williams Falls was quite close and quite beautiful. So we went there and along the way had a beautiful view of Mount Sagamook and had a peaceful short walk through the woods to see the raging waterfall that was probably much more intense due to the day of rain.

A gentle way to end a weekend in a park that was filled with wind and rain, but still very beautiful. It's a place where I will return and attempt to climb to the top of at least one of the mountains at some point in the future.

Posted
AuthorChris Campbell
Categoriesplaces

One of the best parts of #clmooc is how the sharing of resources and discussion broadens and deepens everything. For the third cycle the topic is games and I started thinking of board games, video games, and sports. But in the prompt the other important and significant bit of context and fuel for thought was the idea of play and that's when I started to think about how much fun it can be to teach and explore in an improvisational way.

Over the past few years I've been participating in an unconference in Halifax, Nova Scotia called Podcamp where people assemble in a semi-structured fashion to learn and share how to create social media and I've facilitated a number of sessions there. But this past year I wanted to try something a bit different and entered the BattleDecks contest. It's a variation of PechaKucha where you have a series of slides that advance on their own during your presentation. With BattleDecks the rules are that you don't know the topic or the slides and it is revealed just before you present. So you need to weave together the topic and slides as you stand in front of a few hundred people. It was exhilarating and I was very happy to win this year. Teaching in an improvisational style probably helped a lot to prepare me for BattleDecks.

While I don't think of myself as a gamer (which is a self-defined community of interest), there are games that I really enjoy and some that have made me think a lot about teaching and how it can be a model for teaching. The games from Nintendo have a great structure and many are based on a design philosophy that Shigeru Miyamoto took from the way that he drew comics when he was younger. According to Super Mario Galaxy 2 Director Koichi Hayashida the structure is Kishōtenketsu, and in Japanese manga over four panels, "you introduce a concept, and then in the next panel you develop the idea a little bit more; in the third panel there's something of a change-up, and then in the fourth panel you have your conclusion."

With a game you need to learn how to play it and master it, and what fascinates me is how it works in games that don't have explicit tutorials. You are doing things and in the doing, you are learning. Hayashida describes how it works in Super Mario Galaxy 2:

First, you have to learn how to use that gameplay mechanic, and then the stage will offer you a slightly more complicated scenario in which you have to use it. And then the next step is something crazy happens that makes you think about it in a way you weren't expecting. And then you get to demonstrate, finally, what sort of mastery you've gained over it. Gamasutra - The Secret to Mario Level Design

I love the idea of starting learning casually and then moving into more advanced concepts. One of the proudest times teaching that I had was when facilitating a video production workshop and things were rolling along with us having fun and one of the learners asked, "have you started teaching?" It's great to be in the moment and exploring and bouncing around ideas without thinking of a formal, traditional teaching structure. What is important is the learning and establishing the right structure to allow play to allow learners to build on their knowledge and contribute.

Luckily, I'm able to teach something that I have a deep and abiding love for, which are films. It's a creative area where you need to collaborate and work within constraints, so in many ways it's always a game. The structure that I love to follow in class is to start by talking about films at the beginning of class. Ideally filmmakers should watch a lot of films as you should love what you do. There are many films and styles of filmmaking and if you assemble a group of people who love films together and allow them to discuss, it will be fun. The challenge for me is to start off by allowing some learners to share what they've seen and then integrate those examples into what the topic for the day is.

For example, in Producing class if we are talking about budgeting and funding the films that we're talking about can be the examples. It's easier than ever to find out information about the production of films and the production companies, so even if most people haven't heard of the film, within a few minutes we can figure out a lot about it and how it relates to making out own films.

For me the most exciting part is the improvisatory nature of teaching this way. Having a large unknown factor and needing to respond and change as it goes is a lot of fun and it keeps me on my toes. Knowing where we need to end up, but not knowing the way there makes each day new and even with the same topic in the same class it never ends up being the same. That's a lot of fun.

Posted
AuthorChris Campbell
Categorieslearning