11 07 2011

Y’know, when you’re deep in the throes of crunch, putting in endless hours, it’s easy to get tunnel vision. All you can see is how much work you have left to do; the difficulties you face trying to fulfill your vision. You can forget that there are people out there who are really excited about your project.

As I sit here, working on Uncharted 3 until the wee hours of the morning, episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic playing in the background, I think about how this holiday season I’m going to celebrate the release of U3, play me some Skyrim, and (if the rumors pan out) watch the heck out of some new ponies. It’s energizing to imagine that some fans are looking forward to U3 just as much as I’m looking forward to season 2 (moar Luna plz).

My favorite stories are the simple ones — the ones that people take for granted. Overwrought, convoluted critical darlings can be thought-provoking and satisfying, but they frequently get a pass on acting, pacing, and other basics just because of the singularity of their vision. But what about the schlock? What about the workaday stories that fill the marquees and timeslots day-in, day-out? Such stories get greenlit because they target a specific, reliable demographic and feed it the tropes that market research says it will pay for. The execs responsible for these films and shows generally have little interest in innovation. All they want is the same schlock cranked out a thousand times, generating reliable revenue. If you want to work in showbiz, these are the people you need to please.

Sullivan’s Travels – “With a little sex in it.”

The creators of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic know all about this reality. In one episode, a main character, frustrated by her clients’ demands, sings a redux of Barbara Streisand’s Stephen Sondheim’s [EDIT: Apologies for the mis-attribution.] Putting it Together, a deeply bitter song about being forced to compromise your art in order to make it a business.

All they ever want is repetition
All they really like is what they know



But, frankly, I find “blue sky” concept development boring and a little decadent. To be presented with constraints, to innovate within the bounds of what is considered “commercial,” to color within the lines, to sneak something unique and wondrously crafted through this machine – now THAT is what excites me. (This coming from a designer of AAA 3rd-person shooters. Go figure.) When you succeed, it’s awesome. It’s as if your audience has been eating boiled, mushy green beans their whole life and you suddenly sneak some crisp, blanched haricots verts onto their plate. “Wow!” they say, “I never knew this could be so good! It’s the same thing I’ve always been eating, but this time it’s made well.”

Action flicks, romantic comedies, children’s movies – those are the difficult stories to tell. Easy to get greenlit, hard to execute well. Robocop, Die Hard, Groundhog Day, Toy Story — these are all films that had no business being good. Literally. They didn’t need to be. People would have gone to see them regardless because of the cast, or the splosions, or the toys in the Happy Meal their kid got. These movies would have made their margins, put the studio in the black, and then quietly slid into obscurity, making room for the next year’s “good enough” fare. The bean counters would have been happy — they want “safe,” not “good” — and the directors, writers, and crew would have gotten more work. That’s how the entertainment business functions.

Instead, those who made them decided to try harder. They didn’t see the constraints of popcorn cinema as a limitation. They saw it as a challenge! All these films live on as icons of cinema today because their creators pitched a simple, digestible concept that they knew could get funding, and then they excelled.

As much as I love cerebral films like Memento or Primer, I’m far more impressed by genre entertainment done well. When you don’t have lofty concepts to lean on, when your audience wants to be entertained, not challenged, the difference between a sublime popcorn experience and a waste of $10 lies completely in the mastery of the basic craft of storytelling. Like Sullivan’s Travels argued, the best stories aren’t the ones that speak to the nature of the human condition – they’re the ones that wash over you easily, grip you in their cathartic embrace, and let you forget about your troubles for a while.

Sullivan’s Travels – “There’s something to be said for making people laugh. For some, it’s all they have…”

MLP: FiM is a superbly executed testament to the power that skillful execution has to elevate any subject matter. All it had to do was be pink and sell toys. Instead, it dares to not talk down to its audience. It presents complex personalities and issues in simple ways. It lavishes traditional squash and stretch and secondary motion all over its potentially simplistic, flash-like character animation. It transcends its demographic target and appeals to anyone who appreciates humor, sincerity, and a solid dose of cute.

Are there better stories out there? Yeah, sure. But there’s nothing that had less business being good.

Thanks to the team behind MLP: FiM for reminding me why we do what we do.

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