Where’s That Voice Coming From?

Hooray! No new post for February! Procrastination powers in full effect! (Like anybody besides my mom reads this blog anyway :-P)

Anywho, for the month of March I want to talk about that commonly used storytelling device: The Narrator. I’m pretty sure it’s the oldest storytelling device because, you know, the whole telling stories to each other in the olden days and what not. People have been doing this since forever. As society has evolved, so has our means of telling stories. Back when radio plays were the big thing, a narrator was pretty much essential. You had to have some way to describe what was happening to your audiences. However, movies are a predominantly visual media, and, as such, narration isn’t as necessary as it used to be. The saying “Show me, don’t tell me” is a good one to ascribe to.

Before I begin I am going to give you a head’s up that I am not going to talk about documentaries, although they tend to utilize a great deal of voice-over narration. I am specifically going to focus on movies with fictional stories.

I’ve heard people say that having narration in a movie is a sign of poor writing. For the most part I would agree with that statement. Of course, there are  examples of movies with good narration, but many times it is used as a crutch, especially in movies where there is a lot of narration. On the other hand, a little bit of narration can be a good thing, particularly if the movie plot involves a lot of complex ideas and scenarios. One way to avoid having narration is  by having a bit of text appearing on the screen at the beginning of the movie, like in Star Wars.  I find this to be very non-intrusive. You can get a quick bit of back story, and then you’re done. You don’t have to do any more reading and you’re free to enjoy the rest of the movie. Just don’t have pages and pages of exposition for your audience to read. They’ll likely fall asleep before your movie starts.

Narration can be done in several different ways. One example of narration is when one of the characters in the movie is the narrator and they are telling their story to another character. It’s kind of like the character is doing a monologue to another character, and then there’s usually a flashback or something that happens and the monologue continues over top of that.  Iron Man 3 is a good recent example. The narration was kept fairly brief, and was totally in character the entire time. This particular example of narration lead to one of my favourite scenes in the movie. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet.

Another kind of narration is when one of the characters narrates to no one in particular. This is also the style that is used most often, and it can be done several ways. The character could be writing a journal and be doing a voice over narration of what they are writing (i.e. The Hobbit). The character could be telling the story out loud to whoever may be listening, usually the audience (i.e. The Shawshank Redemption). Furthermore, the narration could just be the thoughts of the character, allowing the audience to hear what the character is thinking (i.e. Fight Club). This thought narration style is not used very often because it is difficult to pull off. You need to have very good writing and a good actor in order to make it work. It is very easy for this style to come off as cheesy and amateur.

My least favourite kind of narration is when some unknown, omniscient narrator tells the story to the audience. An example of this is Idiocracy. That kind of narration often bothers me because it takes me out of the movie. I end up thinking too much on “Where is that voice coming from? Who is that supposed to be? Who are they talking to? Show me, don’t tell me!”

Memento is an interesting example of a movie with narration. It utilizes several different styles of narration and subtly switches between them. In this film the narrator is the main character, Leonard Shelby, a man with anterograde amnesia. He does at least three different styles of narration throughout the movie: the “character telling the story to the audience” style, the “hearing the character’s thoughts” style and the “character narrating to another character” style, but it never becomes intrusive or annoying. It is a testament to the writers of this movie. This is a perfect example of narration done well. It greatly help the audience to connect to Leonard and his disorder. It gives the audience a window into what is going on inside the his brain, something that would otherwise be difficult to do if one is not already familiar with this disorder.

So, those are examples of different styles of narration that I’ve personally noticed being used in movies. There are probably others that I hadn’t thought about or haven’t seen yet, or maybe I’m the only person who has ever really thought about narration this much so as to notice different styles. It is entirely possible that I’m overthinking it all.  In fact, it is highly likely that I am overthinking it all.

Most of the movies I mentioned above are examples where the voice-over narration is done well. Now, I shall show you an example where it is done very badly: The Last Airbender. No, not the cartoon, the movie. Yes, I sat through this movie once. The Nostalgia Critic does a pretty good job at explaining how bad the narration is in this movie in his review. Here’s the link to the video: The Last Airbender – Nostalgia Critic. Skip to about 28:48 in the video. There we are given an example of the “character telling the story to the audience” type of narration. In this instance the character of Katara says “My brother and the princess became friends right away.” Instead of showing us her brother and the princess becoming friends, the writers and director decided to simply tell us that they become friends. This hinders the audience from becoming emotionally invested in the relationship between those two characters. This a prime example of lazy writing and lazy directing. This is also trying to compress an entire season’s worth of TV show plot into a 90 minute movie, but that’s a rant for a different day.

So, now you know more about voice-over narration. Fat lot of good it will do you ;-P

An Open Letter to Everyone in the Movie Industry

For the love of everything holy STOP USING THE FUCKING SHAKY CAM!!!

I am seriously getting pissed off by all the movies using shaky cams. It’s distracting, unnecessary and amateur, and it causes headaches, eye strain and nausea in your audience.

For those of you who don’t know, allow me to explain what this shaky cam is. It all seemed to start with the movie The Blair Witch Project. It’s the style of camerawork where the picture is shaking and bouncing up and down, as though it was shot by someone holding a hand-held camera while running. In The Blair Witch Project, the shaky cam was necessary because it WAS shot by someone holding a hand-held camera while running. Unfortunately, many other big-budget movies have used this technique. Why do they keep doing this? It’s stupid!

Actually, I should slightly alter my previous paragraph. There are movies where the shaky cam is allowed, in films like The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, Chronicle, and other “found footage” type movies. From Wikipedia: “Found footage is a genre of film making, especially horror, in which all or a substantial part of a film is presented as discovered film or video recordings, often left behind by missing or dead protagonists. The events on screen are seen through the camera of one or more of the characters involved, who often speaks off screen. Filming may be done by the actors themselves as they recite their lines, and shaky camera work and naturalistic acting are often employed.”

There is a perfectly good reason why the shaky cam is used in the above movies, because the characters in the movies are the ones filming. They are not professional camera people, they don’t have access to tripods and other things which would smooth out their shots. The characters themselves are running while holding the camera, thus the footage is bouncy and hard to follow. I would even go so far as to say that in these types of movies the camera itself is a character. I know it’s an inanimate object, but I think it’s true.

Therefore, I will begrudging forgive “found footage” style movies for using shaky cam. I will also forgive some documentaries, but they still need to use it sparingly. They should try to use a tripod or something whenever possible.

There is no excuse for using shaky cam in other movies, especially big budget hollywood blockbusters. In the past dozen or so years it feels that the number of these big budget movies using shaky cam has increased enormously, and the degree by which the camera is shaking is increasing as well. Just reading the Wikipedia page on shaky cam irritates me. I remember watching the third Bourne movie, The Bourne Ultimatum, and feeling queasy because of the camera shaking. I remember a scene where two characters are sitting in a cafe having a hushed, secret conversation, all the while the camera is shaking all over the place like it was mounted to a jackhammer. That scene was painful to watch. More recently, I watched Man of Steel, another movie riddled with shaky camerawork. At the beginning of the movie Russel Crowe is having a meeting with some high council people, and the camera would not hold still! It was vibrating like I do after I’ve had too much sugar.

Both of these scenes were dialogue heavy with no action whatsoever. Why couldn’t they hold the damn camera still?? I really want to know why the directors and camera people felt it was necessary to bounce the camera around during these scenes in particular. It felt as though the directors knew these scenes had no action in them and tried to inject some action into them by bouncing the camera around. It felt amateur.

You can’t add action to a non-action scene by shaking the camera!

Michael Bay, director of many action movies including the Transformers franchise, is well-known for his shaky cam use, especially during action scenes. During the scenes where one transformer is fist-fighting another the shaky cam makes it extremely difficult to determine which giant, shiny metal robot is which. You can’t tell which one is the one you’re supposed to be rooting for.  You can barely even tell what each is doing to the other. It comes out as an incomprehensible mess of metal rolling around on the ground. It is as though you are trying to watch a professional wrestling match while riding a mechanical bull.

Paul Greengrass, director of The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum and Green Zone, was also criticized for his use of the shaky cam during those movies. Some viewers referred to it as “Queasicam”. Greengrass used more than the usual shaky camera motion to make it intentionally jerky and bouncy, coupled with a very short average shot length and a decision to incompletely frame the action. This took away from my enjoyment of these movies. I couldn’t see the action happening because it was out of frame half the time due to the camera shaking. My eyes could not keep up with what was happening on the screen, and I felt nauseated.

Zack Snyder, director of 300, Watchmen and Sucker Punch had actually rarely used shaky cam until Man of Steel. He had been known more for his slow motion action shots. Slow-mo is a very old technique where the action would be progressing in real time, and then would slow down significantly. This allows the audience to view the action in all its glory. You can clearly see what is transpiring, what exact actions the character is taking, what the result of these actions are, and what the character’s next move is. Here’s an example from 300. He’s gotten a lot of criticism for his use of slow-mo, and I personally disagree. I say “Screw you, critics! I love how Zack Snyder used it in his previous movies.” Everything was shot smooth and clear. I could actually SEE what was happening through all the action and chaos. I had no trouble discerning which character was which during a brawl, I was able to follow the action in combat scenes easily, and I felt it added more drama and punch to everything it was used on. I was quite happy with his direction until I saw Man of Steel. Gone were his glorious and smooth slow-mo shots. In its place was the jerky, jumpy shaky cam. I was a sad panda. I can only hope that this was a one-time occurrence.

Zack Snyder, I miss your slow-mo!

People of Hollywood, audiences want to be able to see the action that is happening on screen. They don’t want to see a jumpy, shaky mess. They certainly don’t want to see a jumpy, shaky mess during a non-action scene! So enough already!

Edit: Ok, ok. You’re allowed to use a little bit of shaky cam, but only during action scenes.