Got to give Props - Props in film

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One of the most under appreciated but also most important aspect of a film production is prop work. Props cover a wide variety of visual components but the easiest way to communicate what they are is to say that everything you see in a frame that is not an actor or some computer generated wizardy is a prop. Costumes, setting, any practical item. 

Props serve many different purposes: they ground the reality of the film, they serve functional purposes, a detective won’t get far without a gun.

Arguably the most important use of prop is to communicate a characters personality, it is the difference between a character wearing a leather strap watch or a giant, shiny, piece of metal. Each says something about the individual character’s personality.

Props are important, they can make or break a character and can be supporting provocative, evocative, supporting or contradictory. They make the world of the film larger by delivering messages in visual form.The prop above is one of the most memorable of recent years. It is a device that is the protagonists sole anchor to reality. If that statement doesn’t make any sense, you really need to watch Inception.

Visual artists rely on audience members to engage with props. They allow us to bring our own personality to the film, our own logic, our own neuroses. Making for a much deeper form of entertainment. 

Take a look at this use of prop in the Soderbergh drama Contagion. Spoilers to follow:

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In Contagion Jude Law’s character is a member of the blogosphere who seeks to exploit the deadly virus for monetary gain. He accomplishes this by claiming to have survived the virus through use of an alternative homeopathic treatment. After having suposedly survived the virus the audience can see him wearing this makeshift anti contamination suit. 

This prop is at once contradictory and revealing of character. Obviously had he survived the illness he would have no need for the suit. This tells us that he is lying, giving us once more evidence that he is dishonest and self serving. 

Next we can take a look at the suit itself. It is makeshift at best, this is once again illustrative of the character. He is a blogger, unofficial, unaffiliated, unrestricted by regulation. 

We can argue that the suit is ineffective. The top half of his body. Thus it is arguably rendered as much of a placebo as the pseudo scientific treatment that he is trying to promote. Thus we see the characters self deceiving nature something that is illustrated and fortified later in the film.

The closed off nature of the suit also illustrates his personal dynamic with the rest of the cast. He is out for number one. To go deeper we can also see the overinflated nature of the suit, recalling the idea of the puffed out chest and being full of hot air.

Finally we can see that regardless of the characters nature it is a personal precaution meant to protect the character from the contagion. Once again illustrating the dangerous nature of the disease and recalling a thousand separate images to the viewers mind. From nuclear contamination suits to firman helmets to the masks worn by commuters during the Sars outbreak.

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As seen above props can be illustrative of personality while also evoking alternate images and reinforcing known characteristics. Lets take a look at one of the most talked about props of the year. The mask worn by Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.

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The mask is like most masks concealing, while also being intensely revealing. It covers the majority of Bane’s face making him seemingly inhuman and unknowable. It is also true that masks are associated with criminality, concealment of identity being a hallmark of the criminal.

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And yet Banes mask is entirely distinctive and as can be seen from the narrative of The Dark Knight Rises, he is not one to hide. This contradiction is arguably troubling and frightening. Next lets take a look at the the materials of the mask. The sides look like they are made from some type of rubber polymer the rest is metal. If we compare it to the make up worn by The Joker in The Dark Knight we can see that while The Joker’s mask is arguably more natural:

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Bane’s is far more industrial in build. It looks uncomfortable, it is tight and restrictive. In the case of The Joker look at how the black make up draws you to The Joker’s eyes, and the red make up emphasises his scars. Unlike The Jokers make up and coloured hair it Bane’s mask is not emphasising his features it is enveloping them but like the make up applied to Ledger the prop designers have left Hardy the use of his eyes.

If we look at the vent from which Bane speaks we can see that it is very small, a case could be made that this is a physical illustration of the mind of a terrorist. His views, his words, are restricted by an entirely irremovable destructive doctrine.

Bane’s mask is a completely separate addition, it looks heavy. Now lets go further. If we look at the tubes of the mask we can see that it is functional this is important in the later plot. The symmetry between the upper and bottom rows with gap for the vent between also recall teeth. What else features a mask like Bane’s? 

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Bane’s mask it can be argued gives the viewer such an uneasy feeling because of the images it provokes. Images we associate with danger. Add to this the fact that his mask recalls those worn by other legendary villains and it can be seen why this mask was such a topic of discussion.

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Hannibal Lecter has been one of the most enduring screen villains since his first appearance. Compare the industrial design of his mask to Bane’s. Now take a look at arguably the most enduring villain of all time a villain that was made wholly real because of a mask and a voice. 

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Once again we see the patterns form. Just as the prop of Bane’s mask and arguably the choice of a distinctive voice were informed by what went before, not just Vader but Ledger too. So too we bring forward what we have learnt from life and from previous viewing to inform and increase our experience of the film and the character put forth. 

There is a psychological test where people are shown innocuous ink blots. What they see in these ink blots is supposed to be illustrative of their state of mind, but what if they were actually meant to provoke certain images, certain feelings?

Arachnophobia is one of the most common fears in the world. The prop designers of The Dark Knight Rises have said have that they looked at tarantulas while designing the mask:

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Now take another look at those tubes on Bane’s mask. Creepy isn’t it? 

To conclude props are often unthought about, taken at face value, excuse the pun. But they are one of the aspects of mise en scene that make the medium of film so exciting. Film is a visual medium, without excellent prop designers, films would be a lot less interesting. 

As for my favourite use of prop. You can find it in Memento a film about a man without the ability to form new memories who must constantly produce and reinterpret clues left by himself in order to find his wife’s killer. View the trailer here: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vS0E9bBSL0

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The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey

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The mountain road is treacherous. The cave dark and deep. Know not death and wield it unfeeling, for what is light in the shadow of a giant?

It is interesting to take a step back from The Hobbit and really put it in perspective. This is a film that not only:

  • Had on the fly rewrites. Originally planned as two films, the writers found themselves reworking the scripts as they realised that a trilogy would be better. 
  • Changed director. Original director Guillermo Del Toro left after various delays.
  • Threw out most of Del Toro’s original designs. 
  • Had the good fortune to find one it’s rights owners enveloped in the dark grasp of bankruptcy. 

But also tried to recapture the lightning in a bottle that was The Lord of the Rings trilogy. 

The Hobbit should not have worked. The Hobbit should not have been made. Peter Jackson definitely should not have returned to direct. It’s production is an unlikely story. Almost as unlikely as the story of a hobbit who lived in a hole, and never, ever went on adventures. But we all know what happened there. 

The Hobbit is stunning! An amazing achievement. 

Unbelievably it fits perfectly alongside the original trilogy. In design, tone, and pace The Hobbit is a worthy successor. 

The acting is first rate. For those that doubted the casting of Martin Freeman rest assured your doubts were unwarranted. 

Since the days of ‘The Office’ Freeman has shown himself capable of engendering something in audiences that all actors strive for empathy. Deep down, in it’s bones, The Office was a love story between Tim and Dawn. We rooted for Tim, because he was a good guy. In Sherlock John is the audience, he is human, he is fallible, he is emotional. 

It is this everyman quality Freeman possesses that makes it all the more compelling when his characters stand up and do what is right, when they take a chance. In the case of Bilbo Baggins this is essential and rest assured this is Bilbo’s journey. It’s a role that takes tremendous humanity, and it’s a testament to Freeman’s performance that in a world populated with wizards, orcs, elves and dwarves. Whenever he is offscreen you miss him.

The rest of the cast are extremely well cast, the dwarves are a difficult proposition for the film, but here it is accomplished well. Familiarity with an idea, can often be a hindrance in film, and those who wish to pick flaws in The Hobbit will find it easiest here. 

There are twelve dwarves that is a lot of characters in order to demonstrate each dwarves personality in a subtle manner it would probably take the running time of the entire film, which means like the seven dwarves before them, the dwarves of The Hobbit are sometimes one note characters. In the beginning of the films we are introduced to their characters in rapid succession: there is hungry dwarf, and grumpy dwarf, wise dwarf and… Well you get the idea. This would have been a problem, if Jackson had doubled down on the idea, instead he chooses to focus on four dwarves. The rest are relegated to functionary characters, serving to deliver lines that move the plot forward and expose exposition. British viewers will be happy to know that fan favourites: Richarad Armitage, Aidan Turner and James Nesbitt are among the four. Each is excellent in their respective roles. Turner recalls a darker, shorter version of Legolas. Nesbitt delivers humour and warmth, but Armitage is the stand out. Armitage best known for his lead role in Spooks is Thorin the leader of the group, alongside Freeman and Mckellan his role is the most demanding. 

Mckellan is once again excellent, his inclusion in The Hobbit was inevitable as a main character from the original story and he delivers, it is as they say, good to have him back.

Mckellan is among several actors from the original trilogy which seek to validate The Hobbit as belonging to the same world. Often times in film this technique can seem: forced, obvious, manipulative; this is never the case with The Hobbit. Instead Jackson uses said characters to tie The Hobbit to the original trilogy in a way which seems natural if not inevitable. For those that have seen the original trilogy there is a lot to love here, for those that haven’t these are still fantastic scenes. 

The action is also excellent. Although the physical fighting lacks the diversity of fighting styles of the original trilogy, the main fighters are all dwarves. Attempts are made to give them their own specialities. There is also something to be said for the switch to CGI for the depiction of goblins over the use of practical make up for Orcs in the original trilogy. The choice it would seem has been made in order to grant goblins body shapes that are not possible, it would however have been nice to see more diversity of costume in the large scale action scenes this is somewhat noticeable. Though it must be said that the effects are gorgeous, I am a purist and will always prefer practical effects over CGI where possible. The set pieces superb, we are treated to several, epic scale pieces, the likes of which we have not seen since The Return of the King. 

When the choice is made to split a rather slim book from two films into three it is natural to worry that the extra running time would lead to unwanted padding. Rest assured that the first film at least avoids this trend. I am also happy to say that this film manages something rather special, as I have said it is part one of three. Being the first of a trilogy, especially of a series that is not itself a trilogy can cause problems regarding the sense of an ending, a sense of catharsis and emotional release. 

A traditional story requires three acts: equilibrium, dis-equiibrium, resolution. When the original resolution is two films away this can be tricky.

Jackson solves this problem in two ways, by choosing to bet on the character’s personal journeys he is able to give us a sense of internal as well as external progression that leads to a satisfying ending.

And thus onto the technology. 

Much has been made of the choice to film The Hobbit at 48  frames per second. There were cries that it looks too real, too weird, that it makes the sets and costumes look fake. I’m quite happy to say that this is utterly untrue in my experience. I will admit that for the first couple of minutes it did seem that the actors movements were too fast and unnatural and then I realised that the phenomenon, no the miracle, I was observing was the absence of motion blur. 

Motion blur has been personal source of hatred for years and one that seems to be exacerbated by the use of 3D. If you watch any action film of the past… forever! You will notice the little trail of movement artefacts that are captured when there are not enough pictures being taken at speed and later projected onto the cinema screen and viewed by the human eye. 

Motion blur reminds me that it’s a film I am viewing. I for one am happy to see the death of it. Hell I’m looking forward to 60 frames per second. The Hobbit was also filmed in 3D with the new R.E.D. cameras, it is quite simply a beautiful use of 3D. The combination of; 48 frames alongside 3D and the stunning practical and visual effects work of WETA make Th Hobbit among if not the best looking film of the year. 

Overall I would call this a five star film. A ten out of ten blockbuster that should rightly have people queueing around the block. But both seem disingenuous. Instead I will call it what it is. An unexpected triumph.


Dexter Season 7 - Catch you on the rebound!

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Another season of Dexter comes to an end and instead of that now familiar sensation of watching a once great property decay, we are left with a much missed feeling hope. Season 7 of Dexter was good, and I mean real good. The type of good, where as it got closer to the end of the season I said more than once they can’t keep this up. 
The real shocker is that not only did they keep it up with one of the greatest finales in the series history a keen competitor with series 1 and 4, but it did all this coming off the back of season 6, a season I hope to one day forget. 
Yes Dexter is back. What changed? Well anyone who saw the finale of season 6 knows that it was a game changer. 
Spoilers to follow: 
With Deb now aware of Dexter’s true nature the dynamic of their relationship is entirely changed. Not only does she know he’s a killer but she now sees him for exactly who he is, we must remember that to most characters in Dexter he is viewed as a pretty average guy. Having Deb realise what he is capable of to survive is thrilling to watch, there is a sense of her both being repulsed and attracted as she begins to understand just how efficient he is. Dexter has never really been able to be open with people about what he is, this is a theme that has been explored since season 1 and something that has weighed on Dexter for just as long: remember the psychologist episode? So having him finally be able to talk about his plans with Deb is amazing. Add to this the fact that the now anther wearing trop of the voiceover has been relegated in favour of him actually discussing his reasoning with real people. Yes the Deb dynamic was the main story of Dexter season 7 but we can’t forget the other amazing arcs. 
Hannah Mckay was fascinating to watch, a different type of killer in the Dexter universe, clean, methodical, under the radar, essentially untraceable, she was for all intensive purposes Dexter’s mirror. Add to this the sympathy engendered for her by the writers and the link was fully established. I for one hope Hannah will return in series 8. 
The true stand out however was Ray Stephenson as Isac. When Stephenson’s casting was announced I was a little disappointed, it seemed once again that Dexter was counting on casting to make up for poor writing, but Isac’s journey was fascinating and it must be said a lot of fun. Isac had style and so did Season 7. Surely aware of what a master stroke the season 6 finale had been , season 7 happily or rather unhappily ended on it’s own. For the previous couple of seasons Dexter had felt like it was simply spinning it’s wheels but now it seems to be racing ahead, and for the first time in a couple of years I have faith that they know where they are going.