Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Originality is Overrated

Many of you have probably already seen podcaster and commercial director Dan Trachtenberg's "Portal" fan film, "No Escape." It made the rounds today and won near-universal acclaim. Deservedly! It's really well put-together for a "fan film," with impressive effects and a setting that felt very authentic to the Aperture Science HQ fans of the games have come to know. Here it is:

After it became the toast of Twitter this afternoon, blogger Devin Faraci of Badass Digest wrote a post criticizing the film for borrowing a conceit and a setting from the "Portal" video games rather than coming up with an original idea.

Here's the key graph:

It also looks like a zillion other movies and all of the best parts are just lifts from the game Portal. It probably cost a dollar and a cent to make this short, but you know what? It doesn’t cost anything at all to come up with a new idea. This, to me, is just as bad as Battleship from Universal or the remake glut or whatever else. Isn’t the whole point of making some small short to showcase your own creativity?

Trachtenberg isn’t even making a comment on Portal, or using Portal to address another interesting issue or idea. It’s just a straight up Portal movie. There’s no deeper thought than ‘This is what a Portal movie would look like.’

I responded briefly on Twitter, explaining that I didn't feel an Internet short had to aspire to much more than "No Escape," and that it would likely be an effective "calling card" or showcase for Trachtenberg's abilities as a director.

But I wanted to unpack my thoughts a bit more, because I feel like - Dan's film and Devin's post aside - this is a discussion that I see going on every day in some way, shape or form.

The idea that "there are too many remakes" or "Hollywood is out of ideas" has become a cliche, and there is some truth to the statements. I'm as sick of the never-ending retreads of established brands and franchises as anyone, mainly because these films tend to be flat and unimaginative, slaves to the built-in fanbases and owners of those properties rather than exciting new takes on classic material. But "Hollywood is out of ideas" is a HUGE oversimplification of what's really going on, and the idea that a movie has to have an original story or setting to be good is a fallacy.

After all, how many movies - even classic movies - are truly ORIGINAL. What does the term even mean? Christopher Nolan's Batman films are based on a character with decades of established backstory, but it's hard to criticize "The Dark Knight" for being derivative. The Indiana Jones films are revisiting the classic style and tone of adventure serials, yet you rarely hear anyone dismiss "Raiders of the Lost Ark" as a lame retread. Hell, the iconic Humphrey Bogart version of "The Maltese Falcon" is an adaptation of a novel that had already been filmed TWICE before - in 1931 as "The Maltese Falcon" and again in 1936 as "Satan Met a Lady." Was John Huston being unoriginal? Should he have instead made a comment on "The Maltese Falcon" or used Sam Spade to address another interesting issue or idea? Of course not.

[This isn't limited to cinema either. Any medium based on narrative storytelling is going to be filled with ideas that have been cherry-picked from other people's ideas. Shakespeare wasn't the first person to tell the story of King Richard II. It's just the nature of creative expression - people are frequently influenced to create art after experiencing other art made by their peers.]

This is acceptable to audiences because movies (and TV shows and books and video games and music...) are about so much more than just the story. Otherwise, hearing someone quickly summarize a film would be as satisfying as watching the film yourself.

I don't mean to pick on Devin, who is a writer whose work I enjoy and value (which is how I found the post in the first place!), but this sentence is just baffling to me:

It’s just a straight up Portal movie. There’s no deeper thought than ‘This is what a Portal movie would look like.’

But there has NEVER BEEN a "Portal" movie! There is no way to define "what a Portal movie would look like." Trachtenberg had to invent it from scratch! That's sort of the whole idea!

Dismissing him with a wave of the hand is taking hundreds of hours of work for granted, and ignores the thousands of decisions that had to be made on every level in order to produce the finished film "No Escpae." How does a Portal Gun look in a real three-dimensional world? What would a fleshy Chell do upon waking up in a cell? How would Aperture Science guards be dressed? This isn't automatic. You don't wake up and say "I want to make a Portal movie," fire up your XBox and then just export all the details for your finished film. It had to be written, cast, storyboarded, filmed and then edited together. A person BUILT that Portal Gun. Someone else fashioned those costumes. Just because they had a video game world to model it on doesn't mean their work required no skill, or has no inherent value, artistry or even insight.

That stuff IS the deeper thought. It's how "Hey, I should make a Portal movie!" becomes "Here is my Portal movie!" Maybe you think it's a stupid idea to make 'Portal' into a short, or that the tone was wrong, or that the sets were designed poorly, or that the pacing was off. But to dismiss it entirely just because the basic scenario is taken from a popular video game title makes no sense. It's valuing the initial, conceptual stage of filmmaking ("Hey, let's make a ______ movie!"), and ignores everything else.

In this same way, people who claim "Hollywood is out of ideas" just because there's another filmmaker adapting the "Conan" novels or doing "Clash of the Titans" is missing the real point. It's not the stories themselves that matter. It's how you tell them. (In the case of "Clash of the Titans"... POORLY!)

Devin ends his piece with the statement: "Originality is king." I respectfully disagree. Skill, craft and artistry are king. Originality is overrated.

Posted via email from Lon Harris