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Napoleon: A Visual Spectacle That is Short on Story

I had been looking forward to Napoleon’s release for months. I don’t remember when I saw the first trailer for it, but as soon as I saw that Ridley Scott was directing Joaquin Phoenix, my initial response was, “Yes, please!” I had visions of Gladiator dancing in my head, and my expectations for this film were through the roof. And I will freely admit, that’s on me. I don’t know if my expectations for this film were unreasonably high, but they were high, and Ridley Scott and Napoleon did not meet them.

The Good

Napoleon is a superb visual film. The production design is gorgeous, the costumes were immaculate, the VFX enhanced everything without drawing attention away from the narrative, and the lighting reflected the mood of every scene perfectly. Ridley Scott and his team built a world that felt lived in. There were times when the costumes were ill-fitting, which brought a subtle realistic component to the look of the film. There were several scenes that took place at night, and candlelight provided the only illumination, which brought warmth to those scenes and often matched the warm mood those scenes were trying to convey. The battle scenes were often gray, wintery scenes, with the only color being the red blood that freely splashed through the air and on the ground. The production design was beautiful when it wanted to be and jarring when it had to be.

The cinematography was amazing. Director of Photography Dariusz Wolski presented a world that felt like eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe. He wasn’t afraid to make us wait with long takes that slowly revealed what we needed to see. In equal parts, he showed us what was gruesome and what was glamorous about the day.

One of the projects that Stanley Kubrick wanted to make but was unable to before his death was a film about Napoleon and Josephine. I’m sure Ridley Scott was aware of that, and there are a lot of moments that seem to pay homage to Kubrick as a filmmaker, whether in the use of Kubrickian cinematography tropes, or the use of classical music as the score in ways that felt like Kubrick was in the editing room, there were stretches of this film that felt like they were being directed by Kubrick himself.

Vanessa Kirby as Josephine was a treasure. She played the role with panache and wit and snark and pain. All of the levels were perfect, and she brought Josephine back to life in a way that made it plausible that the most powerful man in the world at that time obviously would have been obsessed with her.  Kirby’s performance as Josephine was nothing short of sublime.

Overall, this is a very entertaining film. The action sequences are exciting and riveting, and the movie, as a whole, did what it needed to do to keep the audience engaged, at least on the surface level.

The Bad

From a storytelling standpoint, this film is full of missed opportunities. As engaging as Napoleon was on the surface, it lacked that much in-depth. It felt like Ridley Scott was trying so hard to cram as much as he could into two and a half hours, and in doing that, he didn’t adequately explore anything in terms of how these characters, especially Napoleon and Josephine, felt about each other. That led me to walk out of the theater realizing that I didn’t care about any of them. There were moments in the film that should have been emotionally powerful but fell flat because the groundwork hadn’t been laid to create depth in their relationships.

I remember seeing a quote from Kubrick when discussing why he wanted to make a film about Napoleon and Josephine, and he relayed that he was fascinated by the intensity and passion in their relationship. Ridley Scott teased us in this film with one scene of Napoleon telling Josephine that she was nothing without him, and then her turning the tables to get him to admit that he was nothing without her. It showed at once the potential for toxicity and codependency that could have driven the emotional content of the story, and then he never went back to it. Other than giving us some narration of letters they wrote back and forth, there was nothing that built their relationship.

In fact, just the opposite happened when there were sex scenes that showed Josephine completely disinterested and Napoleon only interested in providing an heir for himself. We saw no passion and even less emotion. Then, at the critical time when Napoleon discovers that Josephine has died, the audience should have been given an emotionally impactful scene, but it fell flat. Then, at the end of the film when we learn that Napoleon’s last word was “Josephine,” we don’t care. We weren’t adequately shown the love they had for each other, and other than one scene where Napoleon pulls Josephine under the breakfast table to make love to her, we weren’t shown the passion that they had for each other. All of that was crucial in giving the audience an emotional hook upon which to hang their hats, and we never got it.

Vanessa Kirby’s performance as Josephine may have been sublime, but she was miscast. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Napoleon was understated and brooding in its intensity, but he was miscast as well. In real life, Josephine was ten years older than Napoleon, and that was the reason that she was unable to become pregnant and produce him an heir. That age difference was at least reversed in this film, and it created a disconnect. Josephine already had two children from her deceased husband when she met Napoleon, and if you didn’t know about their real-life age difference, the fact that she was unable to get pregnant in this film wouldn’t make sense. It also snubs much of the realism that the filmmakers were striving for in other areas. The decision is understandable from a marketing perspective, but it created a disconnect in the film that, artistically, they weren’t able to overcome.


Overall, I give this film a C. Perhaps that’s due to my overinflated expectations for the film, but I feel like that’s being generous. I was entertained, but being entertained by a film like this isn’t enough. I wanted to feel something and I felt nothing. Walking out of a movie like this feeling empty is worse than feeling bad. I wanted a lump in my throat at the end of this film but was left feeling hollow. Still, I would recommend seeing it in the theater if you get a chance. The visuals and battle scenes are worth it.

The Holdovers: Alexander Payne Knows How to Fix Broken Characters

The Holdovers was a little bit Dead Poets Society, a little bit Scent of a Woman, and a whole lot of charming and entertaining. This film was a lot of fun, and it was very much a character-driven film. That is to say that there wasn’t a ton of plot and there was even less action. This was a story about characters who were broken and either didn’t know how to heal or didn’t even know that they needed to heal. Circumstances brought them together and forced them to be together for the Holidays, and they all slowly came to grips with where the pain was coming from in their lives and how they could manage it.

Alexander Payne is very good at this kind of filmmaking, and his films often are populated by broken characters who need to be fixed and The Holdovers is the latest example in that line.

The main character in this story is Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a history teacher at a prestigious New England prep school for boys whose crankiness is matched only by his pretentiousness. He seems to relish in giving the boys grades that will prevent them from getting into the Ivy League school of their parents’ choice and he revels in putting these spoiled and entitled brats in what he thinks is their place. We learn later that this misplaced populism isn’t in him from principle so much as it has been ingrained in him by events from his past that have shaped who he has become, and he has never addressed those issues to this point in his life. The two and a half weeks he spends held over in the school over the Holidays will force him to confront that past and will force him to grow as a person and a human being. The character arc that Paul experiences is both satisfying and heartwarming as he goes from tyrant to prince, and it happens completely organically within the confines of the story.

Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) is the unfortunate student who has to stay over the Holidays with Mr. Hunham. Left behind when his mother and stepfather went to St. Kitts and then were unavailable to give permission for him to go with other kids on a skiing trip, Angus must endure 3 weeks alone with Mr. Hunham, the least favorite teacher of everyone in the school. Angus’s scars are more visible than Hunham’s, but Angus tries to mask them with a tough attitude and a cocky disposition. Angus is another character with a terrific character arc, as he goes from a petulant malcontent to a sensitive kid who seems to have found is place in the world and is comfortable with it.

The chemistry between Giamatti and Sessa was also spectacular as they learned and grew together.

The third character in our triumvirate was Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) head of the cafeteria and the mother of a former student of the school who was recently killed in Vietnam. She puts on a brave face for most of the film, but she is being torn apart on the inside by the memory of her son and she misses having him in her life. He was able to attend the school because she worked there, but going to an Ivy League school was beyond her means so he joined the army thinking he could go to college on the GI Bill once he got out. Randolph’s performance in this film is beautifully tragic, as she loses just enough control of her emotions just enough times for us to be able to understand the pain she trying to squelch. Her arc is different from Angus’s and Mr. Hunham’s but they’re all connected to each other and she would not have been able to go on her journey without them.

The plot of the story is really secondary to the character’s journeys and it essentially serves as a vehicle to facilitate the journeys the characters experience. The argument could be made that the movie is a bit episodic, except that the various scenes do build off each other and there are a lot of things that are planted early in the screenplay that are paid off later. All of the scenes demonstrate the growth of the characters and they all fit seamlessly together. Most episodic films could have the various scenes interchanged and nothing would change in the overall story. That is not the case with The Holdovers and screenwriter David Hemingson did an outstanding job of meticulously crafting a narrative that didn’t overpower the character growth but demonstrated perfectly how these broken people fixed each other.

Overall, this is a feel-good film that is very entertaining and should deservedly see its fair share of recognition come Awards Season.

Killers of the Flower Moon: Long, but Worth It

Killers of the Flower Moon might be a top-5 Martin Scorsese film. Yes, the running time pushes four hours. Yes, its placing is as deliberate as it can be. But the acting is nothing short of sublime. Scorsese’s direction matches nearly any film he’s ever made, the cinematography is stunning, and the screenplay is loaded with powerful thematic components and some equally powerful emotional moments to go along with masterful storytelling. Could some time been cut out of it? Probably, but I wouldn’t want to be the one to decide what needed to be cut. The story is woven together so meticulously that nothing is wasted. No scenes are superfluous. Nothing seems self-indulgent or gratuitous. This is as streamlined a three-hour and forty-five-minute film as you will ever see.

That is what impressed me most about the film. It goes without saying that Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema. Many of his best films are included in lists that note the very best films ever made. He is also a director that, despite his advanced age, hasn’t lost anything off of his fastball. His stories are still as compelling as they were ten, twenty, thirty, forty years ago. The Irishman was nominated for multiple Oscars a couple of years ago, including Best Picture, and it would be a shock if this film didn’t receive similar accolades.

Scorsese, along with co-writer Eric Roth penned an intricate screenplay that, despite its deliberate pacing, never stops moving. There were no safe zones to get up and go to the restroom in this film. Every scene was important, and every scene was built on what came before. If you missed anything, you would be lost later on. At some point in the future, I will do a full Hero’s Journey breakdown of this film’s screenplay, but suffice it to say, this was a dramatic film filled with tension because Scorsese and Roth built the conflict and the drama through the slow burn of the first act and the first half of the second act until the Supreme Ordeal, which kicked off a much more intense and dramatic second half of the film. Even when the film ended, some three-and-a-half hours after it started, I was still left wanting more.

That was also due in no small part to the exceptional performances of Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro, Lily Gladstone, and a bevy of talented actors and actresses that brought this tragic story to life. I would be shocked if DiCaprio isn’t nominated for Best Actor. He became Ernest Burkhart in this film. I didn’t feel like I was watching DiCaprio play a role. I thought I was watching the story of Ernest Burkhard and the terrible choices he couldn’t stop making.

One point I will make about this script that aspiring screenwriters could learn from. Every chance Scorsese and Roth had to give Ernest a choice, they had him make the wrong choice. They were able to do that and somehow still allow the audience to root for him. Well, really the audience was rooting for Mollie, and she needed Ernest to make better choices, which he never did. Yes, Scorsese and Roth were following source material and real-life events, but they could have done things a lot differently to make Ernest more sympathetic, but that would have done a disservice to the overall story. I always tell writers they need to love their characters enough to put them in painful situations. That’s the way to get the most drama into your story. Scorsese and Roth cared enough about Ernest to do just that, and the story is that much better because of it.

There’s no question that this movie is going to be too long for some people. But I cannot encourage you enough to see it in a theater. The cinematography is gorgeous, and Director of Photography Rodrigo Prieto bent light and shadow in ways that accentuated the story and made us feel like we were a part of the scene. He also used light and shadow to express the sometimes soft, and too often violent, nature of the West in the 1920s as oil money corrupted men’s souls just as painfully as the oil they discovered violated the environment.

One more point to make is that, and this is speaking as a white male, it seems as though Scorsese and the rest of the people producing this film took their charge very seriously and made a great effort to tell this story with as much sensitivity and compassion as they could toward the Native American community, and specifically, the Osage people. Whether or not they accomplished that is ultimately up to the Osage and other Native Americans to decide, but Scorsese and his team should at least be acknowledged for attempting to tell this story in a way that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago.

Overall, this is one of the best movies of the year. If you are a fan of Martin Scorsese, I cannot recommend seeing this movie highly enough. If you are a fan of dramatic and tragic storytelling, this is a movie for you as well. Yes, it’s long, but it is so worth it. Do yourself a favor and see this film in the theater. You will not regret it.

The Creator: Unmet Potential, Little Originality, and a Disappointing Ending

The Creator was a little bit Children of Men, a little bit District 9, and a little bit Rambo: First Blood Part II. It was clearly a parable for the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which makes the timing of its release an unfortunate coincidence. This was a film with a lot to say, and it was able to say it, at least for the first hour-and-a-half, or so. But a muddled and disorganized third act left an unsatisfying and borderline bitter taste in the mouth.

This is a story about humans versus AI. After an alleged AI attack detonated a nuclear warhead in Los Angeles, the United States put a ban on AI technology and uses its standing as the world’s police force to destroy any remaining tech, all of which now only resides in Asia, since those pesky Asians are stubbornly standing by the tech and offering sanctuary to the sentient beings. War breaks out and an ex-soldier, Joshua (John David Washington) finds himself caught between the woman he loves and his duty when he’s sent to destroy a weapon that could turn the tide of the war against the United States only to discover this weapon is in the form of a child, and this child ends up being very significant to him.

The Creator was an entertaining film and there were moments that were emotionally gripping. Screenwriters Gareth Edwards (who also directed the film) and Chris Weitz did a nice job of connecting us to the characters and bringing them to us as real people. The AI characters were especially well-developed, and many of them displayed more emotion than their human counterparts, which was one of the driving thematic points of the film. Unfortunately, there were some holes in the plot. Why would an AI child-like ice cream? How could she eat it? How could she digest it? The movie set up that they can feel emotions, but how can they produce tears? I understand that they need to be plugged in, but there is a scene when Alphie falls asleep. Why would AI tech sleep? Those might be small points, but I found them to be distracting, especially without anything in the way of an explanation.

I also expected the VFX to be stronger. This film may get nominated for an Oscar for Best VFX, but it shouldn’t. There were times when the compositing was inconsistent, so it looked like the lighting on the characters was different from the lighting in the scene. Again, a small detail but a noticeable one. Also, some of the action sequences were just plain poorly executed. There were rivers of bullets flowing in many of them and characters just ran out into the middle of them and were never touched. From a technical standpoint, I expected this film to be much better.

I did feel that the story was quite strong, at least through the first two acts. There were great thematic components about humanity and man’s inhumanity to each other. The AI in this film displayed far more humanity than the soldiers and U.S. government officials. Americans were the clear bad guys in this movie.

Edwards and Weitz excelled at creating the relationship between Joshua and the AI weapon Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles in her film debut), and the development of the relationship over the course of the film felt natural. It was not forced in the least, and it created several emotionally charged and tension-filled moments. There were times when it was reminiscent of the Obi-Wan series, but this relationship was much more believable than the one between young Obi-Wan and young Leia. They learned from each other and grew because of each other. Both had excellent character arcs so they felt like more complete characters by the end of the film.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the film went off the rails in the third act. The story was more or less abandoned for the sake of ginormous action sequences that were completely out of context with the rest of the story. There wasn’t any warning that the film was going to turn in this direction, but it seems like Edwards and Weitz had painted themselves into a corner and the only way out was to blast their way out. Other than the very end of the film, the third act was very disappointing. It may be worth going through the screenplay to determine where it worked and didn’t work, but that will be a blog for another day.

This is a fine film if you’re looking for 2-plus hours of escapism and you don’t mind a hole or two in the story. And if you don’t mind action sequences that looked like they could have used a little more effort. But the character relationships are strong and it is a very thoughtful film from a thematic standpoint. It just came up a little short in some key areas, which made the overall reaction one of disappointment.

2022 Winner for Best Picture: Everything Everywhere All at Once

2022 was a unique year and kind of an inconsistent year for the Best Picture nominees. On the surface, it looked like the weakest batch of nominees in several years, but the films that were good were very good, and the others, well, they left something to be desired. There were a couple of films that a lot of cinephiles just loved and the general public greeted them with a general yawn. There were some films that were absolute blockbusters but were likely nominated more for the overall cinematic experience they provided rather than the overall quality of the films.

It seems fitting then, that a film like Everything Everywhere All at Once would take home the Academy’s top prize. It was a quirky, goofy, and sometimes gratuitous film that was released early in the year but stayed on everyone’s radar all the way through Oscar season. It didn’t hurt that there were a lot of behind-the-scenes feel-good stories to go along with it. It was the one film that critics and fans seemed to agree on, but, I couldn’t get more excited about it winning than saying, “Sure. I guess. I mean, I don’t know anything else that should have won.”

When I first saw it in the theater, I thought it was The Wizard of Oz meets any Marvel or DC superhero movie. Thematically speaking, there is a lot going on in this film, and I believe that is what separated it from the other nominees of 2022. Not that the other films were flat or without thematic elements. That’s not the case at all. But Everything Everywhere All at Once really nails a lot of very visceral feelings at the base levels. This film is primarily about the relationship between mothers and daughters, but there are also important components relating to wives and husbands. Underneath all of that is the component of regret. We all think about what our lives might be like if we had made one or two key decisions differently, or if one or two events in our lives had happened in different ways. We often believe that our lives would be better in those instances than they are now, so many of these feelings are aspirational. That is what separated Everything Everywhere All at Once from the other nominees. The thematic components that this film explored are more universal than any of the other films. This movie might not have been better than all of the other nominees, but it was absolutely more relatable.

In Everything Everywhere All at Once, Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) believes she’s living her worst life and all the lives that she sees in the parallel universes appear on the surface. Only through experiencing these lives that seem so much better, does she gain a better sense of, not only what she has in this life, but also what she’s been missing. To me, that is where the parallels to The Wizard of Oz show up. Dorothy hates the mundane life of Kansas, and longs to see what life is like “over the rainbow.” Once she experiences it, she realizes that “there’s no place like home.” Evelyn experiences that exact same character arc in Everything Everywhere All at Once. Directors Daniel Kwan and Daneil Scheinart also penned the screenplay and they did an outstanding job of creating conflict between what Evelyn wants and what she needs. What she wants is to have a better life financially. What she needs is to have better relationships with her husband and especially her daughter.

Another universal quality that EEAAO had was a very clear Hero’s Journey in the storytelling. The Daniels did a fantastic job of using the archetypes from The Hero’s Journey to create a story that resonates with a huge audience. Here’s why that’s important. This film is quirky. This film in some places is just downright weird. The hot dog fingers? The googly eyes? The rocks? I’m not even going to even talk about the stick up the butt. These are story components that no one should be able to relate to. These are story components that suggest this film is going after a niche audience and nothing more. And yet, because the Daniels adhered so closely to the tenants of the Hero’s Journey, audiences got this movie in a way that no reasonable person should have expected. Aspiring writers and filmmakers should use this film as a template, if for no other reason than to see how using the archetypes of the Hero’s Journey to make a film resonate with unexpected people.

Everything Everywhere All at Once had a good night on Oscar night. Aside from Best Picture it also won for Best Director, Best Editing, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. While it deserved all of those wins, the acting should take special note. Many films have won Best Picture without winning acting awards, but a film is not going to win Best Picture without some superb acting, and this film is no exception. The acting was very good all the way around, and Everything Everywhere All at Once is worth watching just for the acting. There are some subtle moments that are just as engaging as the over-the-top performances. There is a scene that shows Evelyn’s daughter Joy crying in her car after a fight they had. It’s subtle, and it’s quick, but it feels so real and gut-wrenching like you can see years of pain and trying to satisfy a mother who can’t be satisfied in that look on her face. It’s the look of someone who has finally given up on ever having a good relationship with her mother. It’s a powerful moment. There is another moment when Evelyn’s father, Gong Gong finds out that Joy has a girlfriend. There is a constant worry that he won’t accept that due to his age and the fact that he’s old-fashioned. There is a moment of shock in his expression, but then there is acceptance and love, and James Hong played it masterfully. Both of those scenes are examples of visual storytelling that are all in the acting, and they are both brilliant.

Finally, and probably most importantly, this is an entertaining film. It was arguably the most entertaining film of the year, although a couple of the other nominees could arguably give it a run for its money. But coming out of the pandemic, we needed to be entertained. Anyone who has gone to a movie at an AMC theater over the last couple of years and seen that intro with Nicole Kidman over and over again knows what I’m talking about. Coming out of the pandemic, we needed to be entertained. We needed a movie that appealed to our need for fun. But at the same time, this film had some profound things to say, but it said those things with enough subtext that people got the message without even knowing they were being preached to. That is the mark of a truly great film. It can entertain and enlighten at the same time, and Everything Everywhere All at Once absolutely accomplished those goals.

Did the Academy get it right?

I am inclined to say that they did. Sometimes a movie winning Best Picture has just as much to do with timing as it does with it being an excellent film. Oscar history is filled with movies winning Best Picture that might not have been as good as the films they were nominated against, but they filled a societal need at the moment they came out. As mentioned above, it was a strange year, and the confluence of the end of the pandemic and all that entailed led for audiences to need affirmation that our relationships, strained though they are from social distancing or being locked together with our families, can be healed. A lot of people are struggling with a lot of challenges right now, and we need movies to show us that we’re not the only ones who are struggling and that those struggles ultimately will lead to something better. At its core, Everything Everywhere All at Once is a fantasy movie that allows audiences to have a little optimism that their worlds aren’t as bad as they think they are and that maybe the decisions from their past led them to where they should be.

Even though it wasn’t the strongest year for nominees, there were some very good films nominated. Full disclosure, I worked on Avatar: The Way of Water for four years. While it’s a visually stunning film and went on to become the third highest-grossing film of all time, it wasn’t the best picture of the year. It dragged in too many places and it was too long. Top Gun: Maverick was another highly entertaining film and likely only got nominated as a reward for rescuing theaters coming out of the pandemic. I thought it was a lot of fun and I didn’t have a problem with it being nominated, but I’m glad it didn’t win. Elvis was Baz Luhrman doing Baz Luhrman things. It was good and it was fun, and it was over the top, but not Best Picture worthy. All Quiet on the Western Front was almost my favorite film of the year. I was blown away by it until the end, which almost ruined it for me because it strayed so far from the book and the original version of the movie. In a vacuum, that’s no crime. Movies change the endings of books all the time, but changing the ending changes the entire message of the story, and for me, it was a distraction that almost took me out of the story. The Banshees of Inisherin was a movie I really wanted to like. I was a huge fan of In Bruges, but this movie was much different, and I wasn’t quite ready for it. Tar is one film that I just didn’t get. I went into it with high expectations. I wanted to love it. But the longer it went on, the longer I waited for it to get good, and it just never did. I didn’t love The Fablemans. I understand what Steven Spielberg was doing, but it didn’t work for me. I thought he left a lot of plays on the field, so to speak. Women Talking had some brilliant acting and was quite disturbing. It was filled with tension and was a worthy nominee. Triangle of Sadness started off really strong, but then it went off the rails.

Should you see it?

Yes, you absolutely should see Everything Everywhere All at Once. It’s wacky and quirky, but it has some universal themes that make it compelling and filled with emotion. It is entertaining and has a powerful message. It is worth your time.

A blog that I did for Stage 32


The Truth About The Animation Industry’s Recent “Setbacks”

Brian Smith
Brian Smith
15 hours ago

There has been a lot of negative news whirling around about the animation industry lately. Whether it’s about layoffs at Netflix or unreleased projects from Warner Bros. and HBO MAX or unmet box office expectations by even the likes of PIXAR, there seems to a ton of turbulence surrounding the world of animation. I have worked in the animation industry for over 20 years, and I have survived its ebbs and flows. Times like these are nothing new, and to be honest, we’ve survived times that have been a lot worse.

Words like that can be cold comfort, however, if you’ve just lost your job or if you’re trying to break into an industry that from the outside feels like it’s retracting. But here is one of the great things about working in the animation industry. There is always a place for someone willing to think outside the box. There are opportunities in animation across multiple platforms that simply don’t exist in live action.

Do you want to work in features? There have never been more studios involved in making feature animation. Of course, there are the giants like Disney/PIXAR, DreamWorks, and Illumination. But Netflix is still making features, despite its recent layoffs. Paramount and Nickelodeon are together and making features. If stop-motion is your thing, Laika has built a successful model as well. And there are plenty of smaller shops that are making features and creating beautiful work.

TV animation is also booming. The aforementioned Disney, DreamWorks, Nickelodeon, and Netflix all have robust TV animation divisions that are creating a wide variety of content with tons of opportunities for artists and production alike.

Then there is the world of video games, which only really exists in animation. The video game branch might be the most volatile, but there are a lot of incredible opportunities to create animation there that you won’t get anywhere else.

The Truth About The Animation Industrys Recent Setbacks

Then, of course, there is VFX. It’s another volatile branch of the industry, but it offers different opportunities. When you work on an animated feature or TV show, you will likely be on the same project for multiple years. Most VFX projects only last a few months, so when someone working on a feature gets one credit, a person in VFX could have earned a half dozen more credits because she had the opportunity to work on so many more projects.

Tom Sito is on the faculty at the John Hench Division of Animation and Digital Arts at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. He has been entrenched in the animation industry since the 1970s and he has worked as an animator and storyboard artist at studios such as Filmation, Walt Disney Feature Animation, and DreamWorks Animation, among others. His credit list is expansive and includes He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Prince of Egypt, and Shrek. Sito was also head of the Animation Guild for several years, and he has written several books on the history and the processes of animation. It is safe to say that Tom Sito has forgotten more about animation than most of the rest of us will ever know.

I contacted him recently, and I asked him what his thoughts were on the overall health of the animation industry.

“I think the animation industry is in excellent health,” he told me. “All during the COVID lockdown, when Hollywood struggled to do films, animation boomed. The Netflix and HBO Max things are temporary aberrations. By Christmas, all the hubbub will be forgotten.”

And you know what? He’s absolutely right. I was working on a giant VFX project when the pandemic started, and I missed a grand total of 2 days of work (that I still got paid for). Most of the team missed about a week while the company set everyone up to work from home. With very few glitches, we were up and running at full speed after a couple of weeks and none of us missed a single paycheck.

And I’m not the only one. Most of the people that I know in animation worked steadily all the way through the pandemic. That is one of the beautiful things about the current model for making animated films and television is that it is conducive to the work-from-home model. Most artists these days are working from a computer. The digital age in which we live allows for collaboration to happen online over secure networks using tools like Zoom, Blue Jeans, Slack, and others.

The Truth About The Animation Industrys Recent Setbacks

I followed up with Sito asking him where he thought the most opportunity was these days. In his opinion, was it in features or TV or VFX?

“The great thing about animation now is when one division is slowing, another is picking up. So if features are slow, TV is hot. If that is not happening, games are booming. Game budgets are now the equivalent of a feature film. If games aren’t happening, streaming. Or visual effects. Or Commercials. I have an animator friend who animated at Disney feature, then went to Electronic Arts, and now is on the Simpsons. When I started in the 70s, those kinds of shifts were not possible.”

Again, I understand that this might all be difficult to read if you’ve just been laid off and your phone isn’t ringing off the hook with offers for new opportunities. I can tell you that I know how you feel. I have been laid off multiple times, and more than once I had to go several months before landing my next job. It can be hard. It can be terrifying, especially if you have a family to support. And the longer it goes, the less likely it feels like you will ever land a job. I have had those feelings myself. I know them well.

But I have always found another job because the fact of the matter is, there are always jobs out there in animation if you know where to look. Another question I asked Sito was what advice he would give to someone who has just experienced a layoff and is struggling to land that next gig. The advice he gives is both sound and practical.

“Realize it’s no tragedy,” he said. “Just the end of an inning in a baseball game. I got laid off plenty of times. Every studio that was a power in Hollywood when I first arrived in 1982 is now dead and buried except Disney. But me and my fellow animators are all here and all working. After a layoff, take the time to revamp your portfolio (samples), have lunch with a few friends in other studios, and see what’s up. Don’t sit in your mom’s basement and sulk. Always keep one credit card clean for emergencies.”

The Truth About The Animation Industrys Recent Setbacks

The old adage of one door closing so another door can open sounds cliché, but it is also very true. When I was laid off from Universal after the completion of the Curious George feature, I landed at Sony three months later with an opportunity to work in TV animation, and I worked on two series for Sony, The Boondocks and The Spectacular Spider-man. Those three months were tough, especially when I interviewed for jobs that I didn’t get. But I ultimately landed a good job that lasted for two and a half years until I got laid off again. Less than two months later I was working at DreamWorks Animation where I lasted for eight years until Comcast bought the studio and I was laid off again. That layoff lasted the longest. I worked a couple of temp gigs but didn’t find full-time employment again until I landed with Lightstorm Entertainment almost a year later. I’m not going to lie. That was tough. But it ultimately worked out for me, and it gave me an opportunity to work on Avatar: The Way of Water for four years.

The point is that layoffs happen in this industry. The best way to handle them is to understand that fact and be prepared when they do come and use the time wisely. Again, this is a healthy industry, and just because you’ve been laid off from one studio doesn’t mean that there aren’t multiple other opportunities out there. Most recently, I was let go from Netflix back in May. But because I had done such a good job with Lightstorm, and they still have Avatar 3 to make, they welcomed me back with open arms (and a higher salary).

Finally, I asked Sito what advice he would give to someone just trying to break into the business, and I firmly believe this also applies to people who have been in the industry for years, if not decades. You have to play the long game. When I got into this business, my dream was to spend my entire career at Disney. That didn’t work out for me, but the blessing that came from that is the half dozen other places I’ve worked and the hundreds of talented people that I had the opportunity to meet and work with that I would never have had if I had stayed at Disney.

The Truth About The Animation Industrys Recent Setbacks

Says Sito: “This is the Hundred Years War, and you are in Year 1. There is plenty of time to succeed and fail.

“–Animation today is global. Don’t be afraid to relocate to do a job. If you want to stay at home in Toledo, you are in the wrong business. I’ve worked all over the world and had a great time.

“–The things you should look for are 1) Experience, 2) Reputation, 3) Money. In that order. Experience and Money are self-explanatory, but what I mean about reputation is credits on some big, well-known projects will open doors for you. Whatever I do for the rest of my life, I am known as a guy who animated on Roger Rabbit, Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Shrek, Prince of Egypt, and He-Man. Richard Williams called that your armor. You need to build up armor. Then people will seek you out instead of the other way around.

“–A lot of animation is based on personal contacts. I want to like and trust the artists I hire. So don’t lose touch with your animation buddies. They will be the ones to turn you on to new job opportunities more than any job site. Even working on a bad project, people are watching you. People that will go on to good projects. Do your very best, no matter what the project. Because you never know who is watching.

“Now good luck, and good hunting.”

Good luck, indeed. But always remember that you make your own luck. I got lucky by landing back at Lightstorm after it didn’t work out for me at Netflix because the timing was right that they were looking for new people, but I made my own luck by working hard during my first stint there and leaving on good terms. So when it came time for me to go back, they were happy to have me.

The same can hold true for anyone. The animation industry is as healthy as you make it. Work hard, make good contacts, and develop a good reputation, and you will be able to find work. Not only that, but you will have the potential to thrive in an industry that, while potentially volatile, is ultimately one of the healthiest, safest, and most stable branches of the entire entertainment industry.

Everything Everywhere All at Once: A Thematic Spectacle

Everything Everywhere All at Once is a stylized film that combines a whole lot of familiar ideas to create a film that is utterly unique. While watching this film, I felt like I was seeing something the likes of which I had never seen before. Later as I reflected on it, I realized that it was a film that was heavily influenced in terms of storytelling and style by other films. However, the screenwriting and directing team of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert combined these elements to create a movie-going experience that was as unique as it was entertaining.

Stylistically, I came out of this film feeling like I had seen a latter-day Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World. Everything Everywhere All at Once wasn’t as silly as Scott Pilgrim, although there were plenty of comedic moments, and the stylization was completely different in both films, but the overall effect is the same. The in-camera effects and the graphics on screen created a stylized world that keeps viewers on their toes, not knowing what kind of visual stimulation is coming next. However, none of these stylized components existed for their own sake. Kwan and Scheinert expertly used them to create mood and advance the story. They also sped up the camera during fight scenes to add a frenetic feeling to what were already very intense and interesting and entertaining scenes.

From a storytelling perspective, there were a couple of films that Everything Everywhere All at Once borrowed from in significant ways. This film borrows a lot, both story-wise and thematically, from The Wizard of Oz. That is one of the most well-known films in the history of cinema, and its story and thematic components are obvious. Everything Everywhere All at Once has similar themes, but this time it is the mother who is dissatisfied with her life in her ordinary world and is brought into the special world where she sees all of the different lives she could have experienced and they all look much better than the life she has. However, just like Dorothy, over time this movie’s hero, Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) realizes that the life and the home she has are perfect for her and she wouldn’t give that up for anything. Also, similarly to The Wizard of Oz, the people who are in her ordinary world act as archetypal shapeshifters and appear in her special worlds in different and strange ways. Also, also, there is even a Wicked Witch in Everything Everywhere All at Once, and they even give us a little end-around with it. We start the movie thinking that IRS agent Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis) is playing the role of this movie’s Mrs. Gulch, but instead, it’s Evelyn’s own daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) who commands the power to destroy everything in Evelyn’s world.

The new take on this classic theme of appreciating what you have, no matter how miserable it seems, has a ton of depth to it as well. This is a story about the fragile relationship between mothers and daughters and how the morality of one generation is different from the next. Any aspiring screenwriter should study this film’s script for that reason alone. That thematic aspect added a wallop of emotional impact to this story. The audience spends the first three-quarters of the film enjoying the action and the witty dialogue, but all of that action was subtly laying the groundwork for a surprisingly emotional finish. It is that emotional finish that separates this film from others. We actually care about these characters. We care about what happens to them and we genuinely root for them.

It seems like Marvel has been dominating the ideas behind the multiverse lately, but the other film that I believe influenced this one is not a Marvel movie. It’s a more minor comedy from the late 80’s called Mr. Destiny, that starred Jim Belushi and Michael Caine. That film ran with the idea of the multiverse without referring to it by that name. But it pointed out how decisions and actions can change the course of our lives depending on their outcome. In Mr. Destiny, it was one specific event from his childhood that led Jim Belushi’s character’s life to go in what he felt was the wrong direction. Mr. Destiny, played by Michael Caine, changed that event for him to let him see how his life would have turned out had that event worked out differently. Again, the thematic issues of appreciating what you have are all over that film, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it while watching Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not point out how successfully this film and specifically its script implemented the Hero’s Journey. I will save a full Hero’s Journey breakdown for another blog, but suffice it to say, this film is so successful as a story, and is striking such a chord with audiences, precisely because Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert in their magnificent screenplay used those components to craft this story. Not only are all the stages there, but there are several other archetypal elements throughout the film, ranging from the characters to the story elements. Throughout the film we are shown threshold guardians and mentors, tricksters and shapeshifters, shadows and allies. Evelyn herself is not only the hero of the story, but she is also a shapeshifter as she uses abilities from her different existences to change who she is all through the story.

All of that keeps us guessing about what will happen next. It keeps us engaged fully in the story. This is a film that I can highly recommend based on the sheer entertainment value. But it also has a screenplay that any aspiring screenwriter can learn from.

2021 Winner for Best Picture: CODA

In what must be considered at least a mild upset, indie darling CODA beat out such heavy weights as Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza. It beat out Nightmare Alley starring Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchet. It beat out Don’t Look Up and its plethora of stars including Lonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, and a brigade of other A-list talent. It beat out Will Smith vehicle King Richard. It beat out international darling Drive My Car.  CODA indeed turned out to be the little engine that could, winning all three awards for which it was nominated, including Best Picture.

CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults, and the main character is Ruby Rossie (Emilia Jones), a teenager who is the only hearing person in her family that includes her deaf parents, Jackie and Frank (Marlee Matlin & Troy Kotsur in a Best Supporting Actor-winning performance) and a deaf older brother, Leo (Daniel Durant). Frank is a fisherman and she has to help on the boat every day before school, where she is a misfit and often the target of teasing by other kids. As she struggles to fit in at school, she also struggles to help her father and brother keep their fishing business alive as they have to deal with a lack of fish and ab abundance of government regulation.

Screenwriter and director Sian Heder did a masterful job in her Oscar-winning screenplay of creating a layered story that was not difficult to follow and had a riveting Hero’s Journey that helped make it such a strong story, both thematically and emotionally. Not only that, but she gave us characters who were ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances, and those circumstances created dramatic situations.

The Ordinary World is set up right away to show Ruby working the boat with Frank and Leo. On the boat, she’s listening to music and she has a great voice. We also learn that Ruby is a spunky and witty kid who is bullied at school and given heavy expectations at home. She immediately presented to us as a likable character who is also sympathetic. In fact, all of the characters are likable, and that’s what makes Ruby’s impending decision so hard. Hedler did what every good screenwriter and director should do. She set up the story so that Ruby would have to choose between what she wants (to be a singer) and what her family needs (to keep Ruby working on the boat).

In true Hero’s Journey fashion, Ruby gets two calls to adventure and she refuses them both, and these stages happen in tandem with Meeting the Mentor. The first call she gets is when she signs up for choir. We already know she’s a good singer, but she only signs up because Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a boy she is interested in, has already signed up. The refusal comes when she’s in the first rehearsal and the teacher, Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), who serves the archetypal role of the mentor throughout the story, wants everyone to sing Happy Birthday. Rather than risk embarrassment in front of her peers, she runs out of the class. After coming back and giving Mr. V a chance to hear her voice, he presents her with another call to adventure to train for an audition for Berklee College of Music. She initially refuses that call as well because it would interfere with her ability to help with the fishing boat, before finally accepting it, at which point she crosses the first threshold.

All of this gets us through the first act of a very well-structured screenplay that was worthy of its own Oscar win. Moving into the second act, the Tests, allies, and enemies stage is obvious. The first test she faces is learning a duet with Miles. They start off awkward at first, but just when they’re getting comfortable rehearsing the song in her house, they hear her parents having sex. After Miles tells the friend at school about it, word spreads like wildfire, and it nearly destroys their burgeoning relationship. Ruby also has to balance her responsibilities with her family with her new responsibilities with music class. Add to the fact that her deaf mother doesn’t have any comprehension of what she’s trying to do and is questioning Ruby’s motives, and we have a second act that builds the drama and the tension of the story very nicely.

The Approach and the Supreme Ordeal are two scenes in one. Ruby decides to blow off fishing one day to go swimming with Miles. That particular day a state monitor goes on the boat with Frank and Leo and turns them in to the Coast Guard for operating the boat in an unsafe manner due to their disability and without a hearing person on the boat. That leads to the Reward. Ruby makes her choice. She decides that school can wait and she’s going to stay at home and be the hearing person on the boat so Frank and Leo can continue to fish.

That leads to the Road Back and back-to-back emotionally powerful scenes.

Ruby still takes part in the choir’s concert. Frank, Jackie, and Leo come to support her, even though they can’t hear.  Leo’s girlfriend Gertie, who can hear, tells them she’s a good singer. When she starts her duet with Miles, Heder did something remarkable. She turned the sound off so we could watch the concert from Frank’s point of view. He can only see Ruby singing and the joy it brings her. Then he looks around. He sees the faces of the other people in the audience. They are clearly enjoying and moved by Ruby’s singing. After getting home, Frank asks Ruby to sing the song for her. As she does, he puts his hands on her throat to feel the vibrations of her singing. He actually connects with Ruby in a way that heretofore seemed impossible. Speaking for myself, it’s one of the most heartwarming scenes I’ve ever seen in any film.

The Resurrection is a literal resurrection of Ruby’s dream. Frank decides that her dream cannot die and the family puts her in the car for the drive to Boston and her audition at Berklee. It seems like she’s going to flame out before she even gets the opportunity to even start. But then Mr. V shows up to play the accompaniment. It looks like she might flame out again until her parents and brother sneak in to watch from the back. She starts signing as she sings and the passion comes out. It’s another emotionally gripping scene that only the most hardened of hearts could get through without wet eyes.

The Return with the Elixir… Well, I’ll save that for you to see yourself.

Did the Academy get it right?

I can say unequivocally that they did. I have already posted that CODA was my favorite film of the year, and that can be seen here. Aside from that, the last two years have been difficult on all of us. CODA is the feel-good movie that we needed (and deserved), and it’s been a long time since a feel-good movie won Best Picture. You could make the case that Green Book was a feel-good movie, but it was so polarizing that any feel-good aspects associated with it were washed away. In my humble opinion, the last movie to win Best Picture that could truly be called a feel-good movie was 2010’s The King’s Speech, or maybe 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, which was another little engine that could. Either way, it’s been a while since a feel-good kid of movie won, so maybe we were due.

But even just looking at CODA on the merits, it deserved to win Best Picture. It has a layered story with a main character who has the classic dilemma of having to choose between what she wants and what she needs. There’s really a deeper layer than that because, in fact, she has to choose between what she needs and what her family, the people she loves, needs. And that need isn’t trivial at all. Her family lives with a disability and she appears to be the only one who can help them. This is a real problem with no easy answers.

When comparing Coda to the other films that were nominated this year, CODA had the most. It was a well-crafted story that was also entertaining and emotionally captivating. Each of the other films nominated this year had one or two of those qualities, but CODA was the only one with all three. It was clearly the most deserving film this year to be named Best Picture.

Should you see it?

Absolutely. This is a story that will not only entertain you, but it will make you feel something. For aspiring screenwriters, this film has a script that any screenwriter can learn from, as it’s win for Best Adapted Screenplay demonstrates. This is a film that, if you have not seen, or even if you have seen only once, you should do what you can to see it or see it again.