Category Archives: Terms

Film 101: Development Hell

Ah, development hell, the two words you never want to hear associated with a film you really want to see.

Development hell is the term used for a project, big or small, that is stuck in development for years without moving on to completion. During this time a project can change directors, cast, scripts and producers multiple times and yet no real progress is made. If it goes on long enough, development hell can lead to production being shut down multiple times.

Examples of films that suffered a long time in development hell include (but are not limited to):

Warcraft: This 2016 bomb was announced all the way back in 2006 but it took ten years to bring the movie to completion

Akira: There have been numerous attempts to create a live-action adaptation of this 1988 animated film, but as of 2012 production has been shut down for the 4th time.

Deadpool: The first deal to create a Deadpool film was announced all the way back in 2000. Then another attempt was made in 2004, followed by a new attempt in 2010. Finally, as we all know, the film was released in 2016 and became one of the most popular films of the year.

Jonny Quest: A live-action adaptation of the cult classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon series has been in the works since 1995. At one point in 2009, Zac Efron and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson were reported as being attached to the project. Since 2015, it’s been reported that Robert Rodriguez would be directing the film, though as of late there have been little to no details on the project.

Atlas Shrugged: A film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s magnum opus was stuck in development hell for nearly 40 years before the first part of a trilogy was finally released in 2011 (part 2 in 2012 and Part III in 2014).

Star Trek 4 (Abramsverse): It could be argued that the sequel to Star Trek Beyond is in a mild state of development hell as it’s been two years and there have been little to no details about the next film in the series.

These are just a few examples of films that were stuck in development hell (some remaining there to this day). This can also occur to video games (Aliens: Colonial Marines, Duke Nukem Forever and Team Fortress 2 for example) as well, though that’s a story for another day.

What films in development hell do you wish would hurry up and get released already? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and have a great day!

See also:

Film 101

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Film 101: False endings

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*warning, I’m discussing the endings of multiple films so I suppose I should include a spoiler warning

You’ve seen it before: after a long and arduous battle, the bad guy (or group of bad guys) is defeated/killed and the surviving heroes all breathe a sigh of relief as they prepare to return to their mostly normal lives. But wait…what’s that noise? Oh no one of the bad guys isn’t dead and here he comes again!! That, in a nutshell, is the essence of a false ending in film. For a few minutes it seems like the story is wrapping up but it’s actually the prelude to another fight (or in some cases another full act of the story).

False endings are extremely common in horror films and are usually employed to lure the audience into a false sense of security (believing the danger is passed) before using a final jump scare that often takes the last surviving character. In non-horror examples, false endings are usually employed as an excuse to stretch out the ending of a film, either for dramatic or comedic reasons. There are far too many examples for an exhaustive list, but I will do my best to list some of the most notable examples from film history:

The Ten Commandments (1956): There’s a scene towards the end of the film when Rameses returns after his army is destroyed in the Red Sea. He vowed to kill his wife when he returned but when she points out that he failed to kill Moses, he flings the sword down and slumps onto his throne, his only explanation being “His god…IS God.” The way this scene ends, it could almost be viewed as the end of the film, as Moses and his people have safely crossed the Red Sea and Rameses has been thoroughly chastised for his hubris. But then the scene shifts back to the desert and the final act of the film truly begins.

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Alien (1979): This is probably one of the more famous examples. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has destroyed the Nostromo, escaping with her cat into a small shuttle. The danger seemingly passed, she prepares to put herself back into stasis to await rescue when OMG the Alien’s hand shoots out from a wall revealing it had stowed away on the escape ship. This leads to a final battle where a terrified Ripley must blow the Alien into space.

Aliens (1986): An equally notable example: the colony on LV-426 was blasted into oblivion with only Bishop, Hicks, Newt and Ripley escaping alive. They make it back to the Sulacco and prepare to get medical help for Hicks before setting a course for home when suddenly…Bishop is impaled from behind, revealing the fearsome Alien Queen stowed away and she’s madder than ever!

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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003): As anyone who has seen this film knows, the end of this film has multiple false endings, with it seemingly taking forever to reach the true ending of Frodo sailing away into the West while Sam returns home to his family.

 

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The Descent (2005): This is possibly one of the cruelest false endings ever made. Sarah barely manages to escape the cave with her life and speeds away in her car. Suddenly she sees Juno, one of her dead companions sitting in the passenger seat which causes Sarah to snap awake and realize…it was all a dream, she’s still in the cave and the monsters are closing in.

John Wick (2014): A notable recent example comes in the first John Wick film. After fulfilling his mission and killing Iosef in revenge for killing his dog, the weary assassin prepares to return home. He’s even given a new car as ‘compensation’ for everything. All seems to be well…until Viggo learns that Marcus could’ve killed Wick several times before this and chose not too. When he informs Wick that he’s going after Marcus, the film shifts back into action and we get almost a full act of action and violence before finally reaching the true ending (Wick saves a dog from being put down and limps for home).

Atomic Blonde (2017): It could be argued that the ending sequence of this movie contains several false endings. For a few minutes it seems like the film is going to end with the revelation that Lorraine was Satchel all the time only to shift into an attempted assassination by her Russian handlers (which she escapes), leading to the shock revelation that Lorraine is actually American CIA (and there’s no way of knowing if that’s the actual truth but it’s where the film ends).

Other films with notable false endings include: Spectre (2015); A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984); 47 Meters Down (2017) and Final Destination 2 (2003).

What do you think of these false endings? Are there any examples you can think of that I didn’t list? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below and have a great day!

See also:

Film 101

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Film 101: Unreliable Narrator

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Yesterday in talking about the Rashomon effect I mentioned the term ‘unreliable narrator’ and I thought I would go into more detail about it today. This concept is one that has grown incredibly popular in recent years and is responsible for one of the biggest television hits of the 21st century.

The concept is simple enough at first glance: an unreliable narrator is any character who relays information about the story (either to the audience or another character (often serving as the audience surrogate)) that is untrue or a series of half-truths mixed together. In short, you cannot trust what this character says to be the truth. And as this character often serves as THE narrator (more or less) of the film/series/book, it makes the story that much more interesting because (assuming you are aware they are unreliable) the entire time you are wondering if you can believe anything being told to you.

 

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To really understand this concept though, you have to keep in mind that the unreliable narrator is, in my opinion, a relatively recent development. For most of film history, the narrator (if there is one) is a figure above reproach, one that will consistently let us (the audience) know what is really going on and who is doing what. It seems that the studios discovered that having an unreliable narrator made for a good story. Of course they weren’t the first: the big television hit I referred to at the beginning was none other than HBO’s Game of Thrones, which of course is based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (that may or may not ever see completion, I finished reading A Dance with Dragons almost FIVE years ago). The books are notorious for having no overarching narrator that you might find in other book series. Instead, each chapter is told from one character’s point of view, meaning everything we see is biased by the perceptions of that character. Since none of the characters know the full picture (except for maybe Varys and I’m not sure even he knows about what’s going on north of the Wall), you can’t fully trust (and in the case of some like Littlefinger, not at all) what these characters see/know/think they know. And this mostly carries over to the TV show.

Other good examples of an unreliable narrator in film include:

  • Fight Club (1999): It turns out that only one of the two main protagonists actually exists, the other is in the main character’s head.
  • A Beautiful Mind (2001): The main character is eventually diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and it turns out several characters we’ve come to know are not real.
  • Atomic Blonde (2017): It could be said this film has several examples as the “true” story does not come out towards the end. Lorraine, being the main character, is probably the chief example as her search for “Satchel” is revealed to be based on a lie

And that’s pretty much what an unreliable narrator is 🙂 What are some examples of an unreliable narrator that you can think of? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and have a great day 🙂

See also:

Film 101

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Film 101: The Rashomon Effect

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poster from Rashomon

It’s been a long time since I updated Film 101, so I decided to pick something that I’ve wanted to cover for a while: the Rashomon effect, which you’ve most likely seen even if you didn’t know it was called that.

First, the definition: The Rashomon effect occurs when the same event is given contradictory interpretations by the different individuals involved. The name derives from Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, where the murder of a samurai is described in four mutually contradictory ways, with the final description presented as “the truth.”

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it appears a lot in crime shows (imagine episodes of CSI where different suspects are being interviewed and they each describe what happened from their perspective, but everything is different each time it is told). Another good example is the third season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “A Matter of Perspective” where Commander Riker is put on trial for allegedly murdering a scientist. Using the ship’s holodeck, the events are recreated using each person’s testimony, with radically different interpretations of the same events.

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Still from “A Matter of Perspective”

The Rashomon effect is interesting because it often forces the audience to ask themselves “what is the truth?” and even when the “solution” is given, there is sometimes an implication that there is no correct answer and the truth must be determined for oneself. As a side note, given that the characters involved give contradictory accounts of certain events, they can also be considered unreliable narrators (meaning, unlike certain shows where you have no reason to question what a character says, an unreliable narrator cannot be trusted under any circumstances).

Thinking about the Rashomon effect, do any examples come to mind? List one or two in the comments below, along with what you think about the Rashomon effect (like, is it still a good technique or has it had its day?) Have a good day and thank you again for supporting Film Music Central 🙂

See also:

Film 101

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Film 101: Deus ex machina

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Literally translating to “god from the machine,” deus ex machina refers to a plot device in which a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the inspired and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. The phrase originates in ancient Greek drama, where the mortal heroes would be rescued from their dilemma by the direct intervention of the gods (usually wheeled onto stage with some kind of machine, hence “god from the machine”).

With the invention of film, naturally examples of deus ex machina abound, though usually they’re the source of great scorn from the audience, as resorting to deus ex machina is usually perceived as “taking the easy way out” when it comes to telling a story.

Some notable examples include (but are by no means limited to):

  • The Eagles in The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings: The Great Eagles of Middle-Earth actually serve this purpose on multiple occasions: Eagles rescue Bilbo, Gandalf and the Dwarves in The Hobbit; Eagles show up out of nowhere to save the day in The Battle of the Five Armies; Eagles show up out of nowhere to save the day in The Return of the King (I sense a pattern here); an Eagle rescues Gandalf from Isengard; an Eagle rescues Gandalf from Moria (though to be fair, that’s more explicitly stated in the book than in the film); and of course, Eagles rescue Frodo and Sam from the exploding Mount Doom after the Ring was destroyed. So much of this story would not have happened without the Eagles (often unexpected) intervention.

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  • Immunity to Iocane powder in The Princess Bride: So in order to save Buttercup, Wesley challenges Vizzini to a “battle of wits” where the latter has to determine which cup of wine has been poisoned with deadly iocane powder. Only after Vizzini is dead does it come out that both cups were poisoned because (conveniently), Wesley spent several years building up an immunity to the substance.
  • Fawkes and Gryffindor’s sword in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Things get pretty dark for Harry by the end of this film: he’s been poisoned by a basilisk, he’s isolated in the Chamber of Secrets deep below Hogwarts, there’s no way he can possibly survive, right? Well…out of nowhere, here comes Fawkes, a magical phoenix whose tears can cure any poison! Fawkes also has the Sorting Hat, which, oh how convenient, produces the legendary sword of Godric Gryffindor, giving Harry the means to kill the basilisk once and for all.

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  • Rey’s mind-reading abilities in The Force Awakens: If this is not a deus ex machina moment then it treads dangerously close to being one. Doesn’t it seem particularly odd that, when Kylo is attempting to read her mind to find the information about the map piece, that Rey is suddenly able to turn it around and read Kylo’s mind, just like that? And on a related note, how did she know to use the Jedi mind trick on that stormtrooper?
  • The Martians in The War of the Worlds: This has to be one of the biggest examples of deus ex machina ever made, and no matter how it’s spun for a film, it always sounds really stupid. Consider: Earth has been overwhelmed by a fleet of Martian ships that slaughter and destroy all in their path. Nothing the Earth has can stop them, it’s only a matter of time before everything is wiped out. And then suddenly, all the Martians begin dropping dead. It turns out these unstoppable aliens were brought down by…germs? That’s right, all the military might in the world couldn’t get the job done, but microscopic germs could (it just took time for the Martians to be affected by them). Independence Day somewhat parodies this when David uploads a computer “virus” to the mother ship, bringing down the shields of the invading ships.

I would also like to point out that The Matrix Revolutions somewhat parodies this concept when Neo meets the central interface of Machine City, known as The Deus Ex Machina.

 

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So there are five examples of deus ex machina in film. Let me know what you think of these examples in the comments below and also feel free to share any examples you can think of that I didn’t mention. Have a good day!

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See also:

Film 101: Archetypes

Film 101: The MacGuffin

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Film 101: The MacGuffin

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If you’ve ever read in-depth about films, you’ve probably come across some variation of the following statements:

“The hero chased a series of MacGuffins for the entire story.”

“The plot twist revealed yet another MacGuffin…”

But what is a MacGuffin? Well, MacGuffin’s are plot devices that originated in literary fiction and have long since moved over to film as well. They appear as some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist (and sometimes the antagonist) pursues, very often with little to know narrative explanation as to why they desire this thing. It should also be noted that a MacGuffin’s importance comes not because of the object itself, but rather how it affects the characters and their motivations.

In most films where a MacGuffin appears, they’re usually the main focus of the film in the first act, but thereafter decline in importance, often being forgotten by the end of the story (though sometimes it will magically reappear to aid in the climax of the plot).

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There are many examples of MacGuffins in film but one of the most popular would be the search for the Death Star Plans (held by R2-D2 and C-3PO) in the original Star Wars film. From the beginning of the film (when Darth Vader chases down Princess Leia’s ship), almost to the end (when the Falcon escapes the Death Star to head to the Rebel base on Yavin 4), the plot is driven around obtaining those plans for either the Empire or the Rebellion. This is an almost identical scenario to the one in The Force Awakens where both the First Order and the Resistance are seeking the last map piece to locate Luke Skywalker.

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The Infinity Stones could be described as the ultimate MacGuffin of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, as possession of these objects (the Tesseract, the Aether, the Mind Stone, the Power Stone, the Eye of Agamotto) has driven a large number of the films, with the threat of Thanos coming to collect them himself growing ever larger. Just for a refresher:

-The Tesseract: Captain America: The First Avenger; Thor; The Avengers; Avengers: Infinity War

– The Aether: Thor: The Dark World; Avengers: Infinity War

-The Mind Stone: The Avengers; Avengers: Age of Ultron; Avengers: Infinity War

-The Power Stone: Guardians of the Galaxy; Avengers: Infinity War

-The Eye of Agamotto: Dr. Strange; Avengers: Infinity War

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Another MacGuffin example that appears both in literature and film is the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings. If you think about it, for the most of the story the Ring doesn’t really do anything except lie on a chain around Frodo’s neck. The entire plot revolves around destroying this Ring of pure evil before the Dark Lord Sauron can get his hands on it or before anyone else can claim it for their own, but we never really get to see it used to its full potential (though admittedly hints are given as to what it can do).

Possibly the most famous MacGuffin of all cinematic history comes in the classic Citizen Kane, when the reporter attempts to track down the meaning of Kane’s last whispered word “Rosebud.” To this end, he interviews countless former friends, lovers and associates, all in an attempt to find where this one word came from (I’m not going to tell you because the reveal is something everyone should experience for themselves).

And that’s my explanation for what a MacGuffin is. Having read through the examples, do any MacGuffins come to mind that I didn’t list? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below 🙂

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See also:

Film 101: Archetypes

Film 101: Deus ex machina

Film Music 101: Borrowing

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Borrowing is a tricky subject to discuss in the world of film music. Almost all composers do it, but hardly anyone will talk about it (officially that is). And that’s a shame because borrowing is one of the most interesting things to look at in a film score (or group of scores).

Borrowing is what happens when a composer takes a theme from another score (usually one of their previous works, but not always) and places it in the score they’re presently working on. There are many reasons why this might need to happen. A composer might be working on several scores in a single year (i.e. James Horner in 1995) and instead of creating a wholly original score for each film, it might be more convenient to borrow and re-use several themes, particularly if the music fits in the new film.

As a general rule of thumb, if a composer scores at least two films in the same year, it’s likely you can listen to both soundtracks and find at least several identical cues.

Jerry Goldsmith talks about Alien

Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Alien (both from 1979) both provide a good example as well. In this case, the similarity is slight, but unmistakable. First, watch Alien and listen to the music in the opening of the film (after the opening title), when the camera is panning around the empty ship. Then, go to Star Trek: The Motion Picture and fast forward to the scene where Spock steals a spacesuit. It’s the exact same music!

John Williams is equally guilty in my opinion. While not identical, compare Princess Leia’s theme from Star Wars (1977) to Marian’s theme in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); they are suspiciously similar.

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Elmer Bernstein (of The Ten Commandments (1956) and The Magnificent Seven (1960) fame) borrowed a fragment of his Magnificent Seven theme and placed it in the opening for The Great Escape (1963) (it can be heard during the opening credits).

But why doesn’t anyone talk about this if everyone does it? Well…while borrowing is a fact of musical life (classical composers have been doing it for centuries), many (outside the industry) view the practice as tantamount to “cheating.” The feeling is that it’s not right to re-use parts of a film score because it “cheapens” the new product. Of particular irritation are the moments when composers borrow themes that they did not originally create. For this reason (I believe), composers choose not to talk about this process very often (though that’s not to say they never talk about it, I just don’t think they discuss it enough).

First of all, I need to point out that this is NOT plagiarism. Once a theme has been written, it belongs to the studio and NOT the artist. So if a composer needs to borrow a certain theme that another composer created, they are free to use it. Case in point: John William’s theme for Superman: The Movie (1978) being reused in Superman Returns (2006) (the first attempt at rebooting the franchise). Also, in a similar vein, John William’s main theme for Jurassic Park (1993) makes a prominent reappearance in Jurassic World (2015).

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*all images are the property of their respective film studios, they are only being used for illustration

See also:

Film Music 101: Arranger

Film Music 101: Anempathetic sound

Film Music 101: Empathetic Sound

Film Music 101: Foley

Film Music 101: Montage

Film Music 101: Compilation Score

Film Music 101: Leitmotif

Film Music 101: “Stinger” Chords

Film Music 101: Dubbing

Film Music 101: Diegetic vs. Non-Diegetic Music

Film Music 101: Underscore

Film Music 101: Sidelining

Film Music 101: “Test” Lyrics

Film Music 101: The First Film Score

Film Music 101: Orchestration and cues