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Star Wars And the Art of Design

Tom Watches Movies

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Since its first installment, Star Wars has been a veritable masterclass in creating memorable, effective designs, from its costumes to its props, creatures, sets and virtually everything in between. This is a strength that the epic franchise has managed to retain, thankfully enough, since re-entering the contemporary blockbuster landscape with 2015’s The Force Awakens. This sterling approach to aesthetic design is one of the things that’s allowed Star Wars to stand alongside its new contemporaries in the blockbuster game, and even surpass them in this regard. But what goes into a good design? What makes Star Wars’ visual design work so effectively, and what is it doing right that many of its peers are failing at? In a follow-up to our previous exploration of the effects of CGI on the aesthetics of genre film, let’s go on a deep dive into what leads to effective designs, and how Star Wars continues to exemplify those qualities.

There are many, many factors that go into an effective design, depending on whether the thing being designed is an object, costume, character, etc., but two incredibly important qualities to be considered whenever an original design is called for are communicativeness and memorability. Does the object in question express certain qualities through its design, and does it stick in the memory of the viewer?

A communicative design tells you about the properties and function of the object, using visual language that humans have been developing for ages. Does it look sturdy? Delicate? Does it look like a weapon, or a tool for healing? Is it a vehicle, and if so, which part is the front? This may seem painfully obvious, but you’d be surprised how often these fundamental qualities get overlooked in favor or making something look “alien” or “futuristic.” Of course, there’s a time and a place for abstract designs, but the best ones are those that balance that abstract-ness with something (anything) that we as viewers can interpret or “read.” A design that effectively communicates its qualities is an extremely useful thing for storytelling, because it cuts down on the need for exposition. We don’t need to be told or even shown that a sleek, streamlined ship will go fast, while a bulkier, boxier one will be left in the dust, because we’ve been programmed by years of observation to recognize those qualities. A good design capitalizes on this vocabulary, trusting in the audience to pick up on the visual cues its presenting.

Star Wars

A memorable design, meanwhile, is one that has just the right mix of distinct shapes, colors, and components that we can recall it to a reasonably high level of detail with ease. A good place to start when considering the memorability of a design is the silhouette. A fantastic rule of thumb for design is that an object should be recognizable from its silhouette alone, a collection of shapes and “gestures” that can be easily recalled, but is still unique. Think of an effective profile or silhouette like the melody of a piece of music; one that’s too complicated or lacks a recurring theme doesn’t get stuck in your head the way that some others do, but a catchy tune, one that’s easy to hum or whistle, will stick in your head like glue.

From there, a design can bolster this quality with a good combination of effective color use and just the right amount of surface detail. And just like the silhouette, the rule that simpler is better is something to bear in mind. When it comes to colors, a design that sticks to a color palette of just a few core tones that are carefully laid out is more effective than one that tries to cram in as many shades and hues as possible. Similarly, when the colors of a design are mixed too liberally, with numerous small patches of color mingling in a small space, that doesn’t stick in the memory as well as a design with simpler blocks with clear delineations. You can probably picture in your mind’s eye the basic color layout of something like Superman’s costume – blue body with red for the cape, boots and belt, and yellow highlights. It’s straightforward, effective, and easy to picture. Color can also be a handy way to clearly differentiate multiple characters or objects when they’re sharing screen space. Contrasting or complimenting colors can help certain elements pop out and take prominence as well.

Finally there’s detail. Adding surface details and accents can mean the difference between a design that’s boring, one that works, and one that’s far too complicated to make an impression. The right amount of detail, like textures, panel lines, or bolts and screws (in the case of machinery) can make a design feel three dimensional and “real.” Too much detail, on the other hand, can overwhelm the viewer to the point where nothing sticks out. Too much visual information (or “noise”) can easily overwhelm, making the memory of a design blurry and difficult to maintain. Too little detail, meanwhile, and a design can look flat and uninteresting. Color and detail are like the percussion and back-up sections of a good tune, working in concert with the melody to create something simple enough to be memorable, but not crowded with so much information that it becomes overwhelming. Each element supports and adds to the other.

So what does all this have to do with Star Wars? Well, it’s an unfortunate truth that a lot of these fundamentals seem to have been left by the wayside when it comes to modern genre movies and other media. You’ve got stuff like Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, or Cyborg’s live-action look for the upcoming Justice League movie serving as evidence that contemporary design work is overcomplicated to the point of absurdity, with a focus on the abstract and alien when it comes to futuristic or otherworldly technology. Yet, since re-entering the blockbuster scene, Star Wars has managed to stay immune from this trend. Perhaps owing to the influence of designers like Ralph McQuarrie, and a desire to emulate the look of classic originals, the design work on the new films has maintained a high level of quality when compared to other recent blockbusters.

The design work on the new Star Wars films is so good that the positive qualities we went over can be found in even the smallest details. Take the prop pictured below, for instance. This is the blaster that Han Solo gives to Rey in The Force Awakens. It’s easy to look at this prop and just see another sci-fi gun, but when you pay attention you’ll notice the absurd level of information that the design of the gun communicates.

Star WarsThe blaster is a simple design that uses multiple cues to get across that this isn’t a precision weapon, but rather one designed for power. There’s no scope or sighting device of any kind, and the barrel is thick and imposing-looking. There’s nothing delicate about it, no small or fragile components. Instead, it’s composed of broad shapes – a few cylinders, a rectangle, and a handle. It looks like a weapon designed to dole out punishment rather than one for use by an experienced marksman like Han. Speaking of Han, the gun has the same “broom handle” grip as his iconic blaster, which draws a visual link between the two props. This is an appropriate touch, given the mentor/student relationship between Han and Rey. It’s clear from looking at this prop that a lot of consideration went into the its design.

To draw on another example, let’s look at everyone’s favorite Rogue One character, K2-SO. Being an Imperial droid, K2’s design has a lot of details to tie him visually to the Empire. There are subtle design cues that echo Stormtrooper and Snowtrooper armor, like the shape of his chestplate or the raised details on his upper back, and the predominantly-black color scheme, as well as his slightly hunched neck, give him an air of menace, more looming than someone like R2 or 3PO. We’re also meant to like K2, however, and one extremely important detail helps this: his eyes. Rather than looking angry or menacing, his eyes are big, almost childlike circles that give him a surprised expression. K2 is also the only Star Wars droid to ever have expressive eyes, with pupils that can look around, as opposed to the unmoving optics of 3PO or the prequels’ Battle Droids. This helps the viewer form a connection with him, despite his otherwise menacing appearance.

Star Wars

Color is used sparingly, with silver on and around the joints, and simple yellow bands encircling the shoulders to break up the sea of black. There’s a fair amount of surface detail in his design, particularly around the midriff, but never so much that it seems to be jockeying for attention or muddling the overall shape. Again, all of these details are the product of careful, considered design work that worked in concert with Alan Tudyk’s performance, creating a character that connected with people in a powerful way. This is the power of good design – to speak to audiences and viewers in a universal language.

For the moment, Star Wars stands relatively alone in its commitment to effective design. Overcomplicated, busy designs are en vogue everywhere else, with the limitless power of CGI giving artists license to cram far more detail than they should into their creations. Not that all of the fault for the plague of bad designs is entirely the fault of CGI – somewhere along the line, something essential was lost, a knowledge of an incredibly important set of guidelines for creating visuals that become (as so many films strive to be) iconic. It’s appropriate then that Star Wars, a franchise with scads of iconic visuals to its name, is the torchbearer of these design traditions in the modern age. Hopefully, designers and visual artists working in other franchises will start taking note of what Star Wars is doing right, and it won’t be alone in this much longer.

Beginning as a co-host on a Concordia TV film show before moving on to chief film nerd at Forgetthebox.net, Thomas is now bringing his knowledge of pop-culture nerdery to Sordid Cinema. Thomas is a Montrealer born and raised, and an avid consumer of all things pop-cultural and nerdy. While his first love is film, he has also been known to dabble in comics, videogames, television, anime and more. You can support his various works on his Patreon, at https://www.patreon.com/TomWatchesMovies You can also like the Tom Watches Movies Facebook page to see all his work on Goombastomp and elsewhere.

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‘Greener Grass’ Is a Pain in The Ass

Maybe get high for this one

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Greener Grass

Co-written, co-directed, and co-starring Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe as two soccer moms who battle it out over who has the more perfect suburban life, Greener Grass looks like it creators are having a lot of fun. Possibly more fun than anyone actually watching the film, a surrealist satire of suburban life that is neither cutting enough to be insightful nor funny enough to be worthwhile. While watchable thanks to its strange, cartoonish world-building and bold production design, it ultimately fails both as comedy and as meaningful commentary. 

Greener Grass starts with Jill (Jocelyn DeBoer) and Lisa (Dawn Luebbe) watching their kids play soccer; Jill has a new baby, which Lisa hadn’t previously noticed. In the first sign that this world is completely askew, Jill just gives her baby to Lisa as a present. This is one of the least weird things that happens in a film with little concern towards logical construction or narrative coherence. 

Featuring a soundtrack giving off serious original Twin Peaks vibes, the world of Greener Grass is one of pure strangeness: cars are replaced by golf carts, characters wear matching coloured suits, and the whole town gives off a twinkling aura reminiscent of classic television adverts. Jill and Lisa are classic models of femininity, at one point switching husbands to kiss as a comment on how generic their men seem. Nonetheless, they are constantly competing, with the ever-susceptible Jill constantly on the lookout for a way that she can finally improve her life, while Lisa tries to iron out her own familial issues. Sadly, neither Jill nor Lisa ever make it past their sketch-show characterisations, making them at first unrelatable, before eventually becoming straight-up annoying.

Greener Grass

There is a sense here that more care has been put into crafting this weird universe then telling a coherent story of what actually happens in it; Greener Grass mostly using its setting as an excuse to string together a bunch of middling skits. At first, the randomness seems freeing; when you watch so many films for a living, B constantly following A can get rather repetitive. This is a world where anything can happen and nothing is explained. For example, when Jill’s son turns into a dog — suddenly leaving the woman who once had two children with none at all — the how of it all is never asked, and the event is instead used as a means to explore Jill’s relationship to Lisa. Yet, once it becomes obvious that there is no true connective tissue between absurdities (like you might find in the tightly-wound films of Yorgos Lanthimos), the world of Greener Grass grows easily tiring — even moreso considering its barrage of adolescent, amateurish, awkward and atrocious attempts at comedy. 

Comedy is a hard thing to quantify. Sometimes it simply boils down to whether something makes you laugh…or at least smile. While the madcap world of Greener Grass is aesthetically delightful, the jokes can come across as painfully awful — the kind of try-too-hard skits you find in the bottom basement of a bar at the Edinburgh Fringe. Undeniably an each-to-their-own kind of situation, its an even bigger shame that these jokes cannot even be corralled into something actually interesting. 

The obvious influence here, in both form and construction (featuring a subplot with a mysterious killer), is David Lynch. Yet, while Twin Peaks (at least in season 1 and The Return) and Blue Velvet used that weirdness to expose the darker underbelly of American life, it’s hard to say what Greener Grass is actually saying about the nature of suburban aspiration. While it seems that the point is to show how suburban life is already kind of absurd, dialing the zaniness up to eleven doesn’t hammer in that point any further. It comes as little surprise that the feature film is adapted from a short. Perhaps it should’ve stayed that way. 

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‘In Fabric’ is a Mesmerizing Satire of Consumerism

TIFF 2018

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Our obsession with shopping and consumerism is going to be the death of us all — at least, director Peter Strickland seems to think so. The constantly increasing Black Friday crowds and coupon-clipping masses will rue the day they bought that really nice pair of pants at such a great price. Or in the case of Strickland’s latest cocktail of absurdity and horror, a beautiful red dress. In Fabric is a phantasmagoric allegory for our growing obsession with buying into our wants, and losing our souls in the process — and it’s about as weirdly fantastic as it sounds.

Though Strickland may refute that he consciously went for evoking giallo films when making In Fabric (which he did at a Q&A that took place at the midnight screening of the Toronto International Film Festival), it’s difficult not to see the influence. While there isn’t much here in terms of plotting — a red dress makes its way to different owners, affecting their lives in different, negative ways — Strickland focuses more on illuminating the characters’ lives while they have this haunted outfit.

The only real connection between stories is the department store that sells the dress, filled with bald women wearing wigs and saying everything in as complicated and absurd of a way as possible. They move through the interior of the building using dumbwaiters, and are managed by a creepy old man who is a professional at customer service. The same model can be found throughout an in-store catalogue that showcases all the latest fashions; it’s an eerily intricate nightmare of normality. The women all essentially cast spells on their customers to get them to buy something, except the spells are just really flattering comments and exceptional customer service. Strickland strikes right at the heart of consumerism with his weird fixation on the ways we’re lulled into parting with our money.

In Fabric

Standing out is the way that the rich atmosphere is presented. In Fabric blends a deadly cocktail of sensuality and dread in every frame, from a red dress lighting up an entire room with its bright colors, to images of its smooth texture overlapping over morbid imagery; every moment in Strickland’s fourth feature is a delight. It’s not necessarily style over substance, but one of the many ways In Fabric falters is how indebted to its editing and visuals it becomes, especially by the second half. Berberian Sound Studio also fell into the same trappings, but where that was used for narrative purposes, In Fabric utilizes it solely for a more textured atmosphere. This lends it a strong voice, but one that drags on too long.

The question that many will wonder as the movie progresses: is this is horror or comedy? The truth is, In Fabric falls more on the comedic side of things. It’s not exactly a scary movie, but it evokes a lot of haunting imagery. Strickland has always written from a more humorous point of view, with maybe the exception being his debut film, Katalin Varga, but this marks the first film of his to just lean into the laughs. It’s absurd and preposterous, but grounded in something we can all relate to in some manner — either the customer service side of things, or being swindled into buying something we don’t need.

The appropriately campy performance from Fatma Mohamed as a saleswoman who manages to convince different people to purchase the possessed red dress is one of the greatest delights of In Fabric. On top of that are some of the weirder concepts that the film latches onto and decides to explore — like the semantics of washing machine repair. The monotonous descriptions of washing machines in disarray, and subsequently what parts and procedures are needed to fix them, offers a glimpse at how monotony can be hypnotic.

In Fabric

There’s an allure to everything here, as even its smallest jokes feel representative of some larger conversation about the items we purchase and the meaning (or lack thereof) that we attach to them. Peter Strickland exists within a very unique form of cinema. Here he’s at his most reverential for the medium, but also posits his most ambitious and relevant statements. There may not be more than just a simple self-awareness to the act of consumerism, but Strickland at least offers an entertaining satire of an industry we all submerge ourselves into for the smallest deal.

Editor’s Note. This article was originally published on September 17, 2018, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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‘The Painted Bird’ is An Incredibly Grim Portrait of Anti-Semitism

From 14 Films Around the World Festival: Not for the faint of heart, the latest film from Václav Marhoul, is a deep dive into human misery without much love, hope or grace.

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The Painted Bird

A grueling epic of misery, The Painted Bird (based on the novel of the same name by Jerzy Kosiński) makes Come and See look like a children’s book. Taking place in the Czech Republic during the end of WWII, it finds one young Jewish boy on an odyssey to find his family, suffering indignity after indignity on the way there. Nearly all human deprivation is here — rape, murder, bestiality — which is made all the worse by its grim inevitability. It’s a difficult, brutal watch; the kind of film I’d recommend, but would find difficult to defend if challenged.

The Painted Bird is not like other birds. Due to its strange plumage, the other birds get jealous. They surround the painted bird, and they kill it. This metaphor suggests that due to the savagery of Central Europe during WWII, anything that is different — whether Slavic, gay, gypsy, or Jewish — must be surrounded and bullied and ultimately destroyed. 

Our unnamed young protagonist (Petr Kotlar) is one such painted bird. The film starts with him holding a ferret while running through the woods, being chased by other boys. They beat him up and burn his pet to a crisp. He then comes home to his aunt, who tells him it’s his fault. Things get much, much, much worse from there. 

It turns out that the boy has been sent away to the countryside by his parents, evidently for his own protection. When his aunt dies, he finds himself completely adrift, relying on the kindness of strangers to get by. The big problem is that these strangers aren’t too kind at all. In fact, they are kind of evil, with nearly each one finding a new way to abuse the young lad. Told in a completely unsentimental style, The Painted Bird is an incredibly difficult watch — yet, its disturbing scenes aren’t merely there to exploit or titillate, but to lay witness to the horrors of recent history. 

The Painted Bird

The story is told in an episodic format, with each chapter bookmarked by one or two names. Each one brings a new sense of dread: will this person be kind, or just another monster? The genius of the screenplay is how each episode seems to change the young lad just a little bit more, showing how one’s view on life can be completely altered by experience. 

Credit must go to Kotlar, who turns in all-time great child performance, Bresson-like in the simple and pure way he interprets the role. This is the right choice; if it aimed for histrionics, it would have been unbearable. As it is, it feels inevitable. Like The Irishman, the weighty runtime here really immerses us into the young boy’s life; make it an hour shorter, and his transformation wouldn’t have anything near the same effect. 

The epic-length is matched by the epic 35mm black-and-white-cinematography. Making use of a huge anamorphic widescreen, our protagonist is often situated to the side of the frame while horrific things going on in the background, as if to stress his unwilling participation in a degraded world. Unlike the cinematography, the film’s moral conclusions are a complete grey zone, depicting horrific things that show how terrible the war was — and what the disease of antisemitism led to — without ever editorializing or telling us how to feel. One can only watch and watch and watch, powerless to stop the awful things from happening. 

The Painted Bird makes it absolutely clear that antisemitism was not just limited to the Nazis. Nearly everyone seems to hate the young lad, simply for the unavoidable fact of his birth. Anti-semitism doesn’t end with the Nazi’s demise either; the transition to peacetime does little to placate the locals’ hatred of Jews. Coming at a time when hatred of Jewish people seems on the rise and being weaponized, The Painted Bird devastatingly shows us the inevitable end of such hate. While it definitely courts controversy, there is a method to such relentless misery. This is the story of survival. The kind of story that should never be told again.

‘The Painted Birdplayed as part of 14 Films Around The World Festival at Kino in der KulturBrauerei in Berlin, Germany, a special selection of 14 films from 14 countries from Cannes, Locarno, Berlinale, Venice and more.

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