Sep 12 2006

No Strings Attached

Published by at 10:50 am under The Business We've Chosen

This is a rant. No, actually, it’s a desperate plea.

Can we please stop with the wire-fu?

Seriously. It was fun for a while there. We had some good times in The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But lately, I just feel like we’re going through the motions.

Within the past decade, we’ve seen an increasing prevalence of action movies that are in blatant violation of the law. No, I’m not talking about Lindsey Lohan’s inevitable drug offense. I’m talking about Newton’s laws of motion. These movies defy gravity. And I think that sucks.

Now, I won’t argue that movies are, or should be, anything akin to a perfect replica of reality. From the time of George Melies in cinema’s infancy, the art form of the moving image has been used to subvert, heighten or completely ignore reality. And I love it for that. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s why we have movies like The Wizard of Oz, Brazil and Pretty Woman.

But, the action within a story must be internally consisent with the laws of that story world. And, unless that story world has a valid reason for rejecting the laws of phyics as we know them here on earth, what goes up must come down — and at a rate consistent with what we’d anticipate.

Not being an early fan of Hong Kong cinema, my first experience with wire-fu was probably in The Matix. And I loved it. I flipped for it. It was a reality-bending effect in a movie where bending reality was part of the fun. It was, in other words, part of the story.

But not once did I think, “Hey, that’s a cool effect! Let’s put it in every other action film from now on.”

Though, to be honest, my problem isn’t even necessarily with the wire-fu. It’s with the effect that bad physics due to wire-fu — and also CGI — is having on movies.

Suddenly most of our action films are brimming with preposterous action sequences. These movies are frequently derided as “cartoonish,” but let me tell you something — that’s an insult to cartoons. Even the Looney Toons of Fritz Freling, Tex Avery and Chuck Jones had a healthy respect for the laws of physics.

Sure, they didn’t always follow those laws, but they didn’t ignore them either. They played with them. They exaggerated them. They obeyed them right up to the moment when they didn’t — and that was the gag. Wile E. Coyote running straight off a cliff and NOT falling was the joke. And then, of course, he fell. Which was also the joke.

But how many modern action films have you seen — ones ostensibly based in reality — where something like this happens: an explosion detonates and the hero is sent hurtling backward through the air, following a trajectory so flat that Kiera Knightley could sue for trademark infringement. Even a 90+ mph fastball carves out a discernible arc as it sails toward home plate. Yet this actor, traveling a fraction of that speed, floats above the ground in a straight line.

Nobody’s fooled by this. We all know he was suspended by wires. The wires have been digitally erased, but you can still tell. How come you can tell? Well, because it turns out that human beings have a well-developed sense for how objects in motion should behave. We develop this ability at a pretty early age. We have to. Without it, we wouldn’t survive very long.

In this study, researchers found that between the ages of three and six, children develop the ability to predict the motion of objects under the influence of gravity and inertia. Here’s a salient passage:

Human adults are sensitive to a variety of effects of gravity and inertia on the motions of objects. In particular, a hand-held object that is released in mid-air looks natural only if it begins to move downward, an object that falls freely looks natural only if it undergoes appropriate acceleration, and an object that rolls off a cliff looks natural only if it moves downward on a parabolic path.
What are the origins of this sensitivity? Gravity and inertia have constrained the motions of objects through-out the history of the earth, and humans and other animals have evolved a variety of sensory and motor mechanisms that take account of their effects. It is therefore possible that humans have also evolved perceptual and cognitive mechanisms that are sensitive to effects of gravity and inertia. Alternatively, human adults have a lifetime of experience observing objects, and they may have learned about natural object motions.

It’s precisely because of this innate perceptive ability that animators will tell you one of the biggest challenges of animation is convincingly reproducing the effects of gravity. If an animated character jumps in the air and lands a fraction of a second too late, we sense that something is wrong — even if we can’t pinpoint the reason why.

But, for some reason, it’s become acceptable — sometimes even expected — for a movie character falling off a building to slow down, as the wire harness brakes him, instead of accelerating as he plummets toward his death. Or a CGI monster runs along the wall instead of the floor — not like a fly or lizard, gripping the surface, but bounding across it, as though gravity were suddenly pulling it sideways instead of down (I’m looking at you, Underworld).

Sure, sometimes these sorts of effects can look really cool. The problem is…

I don’t care.

When the hero suddenly, at the most convenient moment, displays an ability to defy the most basic laws of Newtonian physics, I no longer fear for his safety. I no longer worry that he can’t achieve his goal. I no longer wonder how he’ll defeat the bad guy.

I no longer care about him or his objectives. And, the moment that happens, the story stops working.

That doesn’t mean Superman shouldn’t fly. Of course he should. That’s why he’s Superman. But how come a mortal man who has simply studied martial arts can make gravity wait while he dispatches his enemies? Do they teach that ability at those strip-mall dojos? It’s one thing for Fantastic Four‘s the Thing to lift a car over his head; his superpower is strength. But there’s no good reason why he should take a punch and soar forty feet backwards in a straight trajectory. That’s just stupid. And it shows a frightful lack of respect for the filmgoing audience.

Wire work is a groundbreaking tool that allows for stunts that could never before have been safely attempted. And CGI has developed to the point that there is literally nothing a filmmaker can’t put on the screen (given enough time and money, of course). But just because we have these tools, that doesn’t mean we should use them every chance we get.

This isn’t a rant, or a desperate plea. It’s a call to arms. This sloppy storytelling (and that’s exactly what it is — a failure of storytelling) is ruining movies. It’s turning them into mind-numbing video games where the more that happens, the less we care.

Watch the stunts in an older film like Mad Max. When that guy flies off his motorcycle and goes ass over teakettle into a field, you never suspect that he’s got a wirework team keeping him aloft. His trajectory matches the distance and speed that he travels, which makes you instinctively cringe. And that keeps you in the story.

Nobody instinctively cringes at a wire work stunt.

10 responses so far

10 Responses to “No Strings Attached”

  1. tsgon 10 Oct 2006 at 9:47 am

    I feel your pain. Really I do. Unfortunately it’s just the latest incarnation of Bad Movie Physics. For years filmmakers have been blowing people backwards with a shotgun blasts that don’t move the shooter, through plate glass windows that don’t cut them. CGI has been used to produce crashes where the car changes direction in mid-air. Before that they were blowing up canvas tents with bullets. Even Superman is guilty of flying up to catch someone falling off a building, which should result in a collision with more force than if they just hit the ground.
    But they’ve definitely crossed a line somewhere. The technical details of a story can be inaccurate if the majority of the audience isn’t going to notice. I know we’ve had a couple of discussions about what I thought was a flaw where you’ve asked me “but how many people are going to know that?” In this case, the answer is “everybody”. At least it should be.
    Whether they care enough to stop paying to see it is the real question.

  2. Michael Gilvaryon 10 Oct 2006 at 11:24 am

    Yeah, the difference is, you’re talking about intellectual violations of physical laws, and I’m talking about instinctual ones. Everybody can sense that there’s something wrong here.
    Note that I’m not calling for ultra realism in movies. I don’t mind bending rules when you can get away with it. What I find incredibly stupid is when filmmakers lapse into non-reality for no good reason.

  3. Johnnyon 10 Oct 2006 at 4:09 pm

    Michael, I second every single thought you present in your eloquent argument. Technology is not, no, is NEVER, the problem — it’s how you use it. Would love to hear your take on the (over)use of CGI, as hinted at in your “rant”. Good stuff.

  4. Michael Gilvaryon 10 Oct 2006 at 6:05 pm

    Thanks, Johnny. I do have some pretty strong ideas about CGI, and may yet write a rant on that.

  5. con 11 Oct 2006 at 7:00 pm

    A man after my own heart…oh, that’s right, you have it. Anyway, you know that I agree wholeheartedly.

  6. Aaron de Oriveon 14 Oct 2006 at 6:38 am

    It’s a problem of liking the effect without understanding the context, I think. I’m a fan of Hong Kong films, have been since the 80′s, and I’ve seen a lot of the wire-fu classics. What has to be understood about those films is that they are part and parcel of the genre of kung-fu cinema. No different than having guys who fly, or can go insubstantial, or turn their bodies into living flame in American comic books. No one questions those abilities because they know that’s part of the genre being explored – that of superheroes. Asian kung-fu films are exactly the same. They call it “The World of Kung-Fu” and recognize that it’s different from the real world so seeing that sort of thing does not take them out of the story.
    The problem, honestly, is that American filmmakers saw those actions sequences and thought “Wow, wouldn’t it be cool to do something like that in one of my films?” So they transplanted the effect, but not the context. Imagine someone seeing an X-Men or Superman movie and thinking, “Cool! What if I gave my protagonist detective in my latest crime thriller X-Ray vision or Adamantium claws? Wouldn’t that look great? Heck, what if I gave random cops those abilities?” Well, the result of course would look, as you have pointed out, stupid. A noir thriller is not a superhero movie. You could have a superhero noir story (Batman), but in general, when you see Lethal Weapon, you don’t expect Gibson or Glover to shoot laser beams from their eyes or turn into fiery birds and reshape reality.
    So I agree that rampant wire-fu in American movies (just like that damn Matrix effect a few years ago) is bad for storytelling and should be limited. But I insist it’s not the fault of Kung-Fu films, it’s fault of overzealous American moviemakers who think “the kiddies” would love that kinda shit in their movies.

  7. Athena714on 16 Oct 2006 at 9:03 am

    Love the illustration :)

  8. Michael Gilvaryon 17 Oct 2006 at 9:07 am

    Good points. Though, I think it’s more than simply liking the effect. I think it’s a matter of relying on a new technology (in this case, the wire-work rigs) because it’s there, not because it’s necessarily right for the job. See also overuse of CGI.
    Thanks! I try.

  9. JenRon 18 Oct 2006 at 4:24 pm

    “When the hero suddenly, at the most convenient moment, displays an ability to defy the most basic laws of Newtonian physics, I no longer fear for his safety.”
    You’ve nailed it.
    But the problem is not that different from all the old scenes where our hero is disarming the time bomb that mysteriously runs fast at the beginning and conveniently slows down for the last ten seconds. Or the army of digitally reproduced Orcs or whatevers that fails to inspire fear.

  10. NelCon 21 Aug 2007 at 1:53 pm

    Coming to the party very late, I think the time-bomb thing JenR mentions is what you might call a visualisation of subjective time. The clock runs slower because for the characters in the movie time is slowing down, subjectively, while they’re in a highly stressed situation. Also it draws out the tension for the viewer.