Fairy Dust Between the Sprockets

Having just been reduced to a wide-eyed nine-year-old all over again by witnessing E.T.: The Extraterrestrial in its high definition glory, and awing at the recent digital majesty of Wall•e, it brought to mind the question: what makes for magical cinema? What are the ingredients of timelessness? What’s the big diff between The Incredibles and Fantastic Four, yo?

Remember that we’re engaging multiple senses here, and the ears are half the experience. Music is the most effective manipulator of emotion. Just as with voice tone, notes and rhythm tell us how to interpret what the eyes see. Don’t believe me? Watch 2001: A Space Odyssey on mute. You’ll be asleep before the bone hits the ionosphere. Without that two-note ostinato of approaching doom, Jaws would just be some plastic fin ambling through water. If you take the Tchaikovsky out of Romeo & Juliet, you’re left with two horny teens in a staring contest. You may have no rational love for Bon Jovi, but if they were the soundtrack to your teen fumblings with bra clasps, it creates a Pavlovian response later. This is why advertisers pay a fortune to license those memories – er, songs. Instant emotion by association.

Music can also be used to opposite effect, whether it’s to lull us or invert expectations. Taxi Driver is one of my favorite themes, a romantic sax melody that rings in stark contrast to the scum-infested city that Travis Bickle describes. Or Poltergeist, the childlike, playful melody becomes ethereal and haunting only because of the images on screen. Notice how the best films leave breathing room for the music instead of cramming it into whatever silent nooks and crannies remain. Shots are extended beyond their natural-paced dialogue so that a musical cue can feed us subtext, or even replace what dialogue could never say.

Another contributor is point of view. Part of Spielberg’s appeal is that he uses the child’s perspective with his camera. Their whole world is tilted up, adult heads are cut off. The children are not looked down upon as they are in the vision of grown-up filmmakers. It hearkens to a time of innocence and wonder, and it’s fun for the viewer to feel that way again for a couple of hours. A more literal form of this is the subjective camera, putting us in their shoes. In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the viewer experiences what it’s like to be bed-ridden in paralysis with only one working (and often teary) eye, while all the world seems to happen just outside our limited view. Or in Being John Malkovich, where we have full use of his limbs and uh, other appendages. (The puppetry and portal aspects of that film are rare examples of effective lo-fi fantasy.)

Generally-speaking, the wider the lens, the closer we are to the human field of vision. It requires a lot more imagination, effort, and cash to fill that kind of frame, and films that make us feel immersed in these new worlds are more fantastical. Epic films with huge production design budgets have a greater chance at getting all the details right. On Battlestar Galactica, the entire set is camera-ready, so they can just point and shoot anything. We’re there. Whereas on something like Clerks, if they panned too far to the left, the illusion of a funeral home held together with popsicle sticks and duct tape may well collapse. A set that “breathes” goes a long way toward selling us.

Location-wise, the further it is from our own existence, the more we’re asked to suspend our disbelief, and hopefully be even more invested in the fantasy. The Fountain completely transported me, whereas Donnie Darko‘s world felt superimposed over my own own living room. There’s merit in each method, but I’m more likely to accept Hugh Jackman flying through the air than Jake Gyllenhaal. But there’s a line. Speed Racer may as well be a video game I’m so detached, yet Sin City felt like there was a handjob waiting for me in the alley. And they both used completely CGI environments. Setting a movie in space or underwater or in a castle or an insect colony prepares us for a magical event because we’re forced to cling to the “realities” presented to us rather than to our experiences and whatever filters life has processed them though. A whole post about location here.

Then of course there’s the stuff that actually happens. Plot, I believe they call it. Do the characters have powers? Better yet, everyone but the main character, perhaps? Are the stakes higher than just individual consequence? Does the resolution require them to perform some task they never thought they had within themselves? Self-sacrifice? Do they see the world in a new light as a result? Bigger than plot, there’s of course theme, which I’ve posted about before. As with metaphors, the best ones rely on universals, whether it’s honor versus love, redemption, individual versus institution, etc., and these will help lend your work a timeless quality, as will avoiding plot points based on specific dated technologies or pop-culture happenings. Such elements can still be used, it’s just best to relegate them to set dressing rather than motivation.

So . . . now you’ve just gotta put all that stuff in one script. Hey, good luck with that.

About Gordon

Gordon Highland is the author of the novels Flashover and Major Inversions, with short stories in such publications as Word Riot, Black Heart, Noir at the Bar Vol. 2, and Warmed and Bound, among others. He lives in the Kansas City area, where he makes videos by day and music by night.
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1 Response to Fairy Dust Between the Sprockets

  1. gob says:

    One of your best posts. I don’t write, but still always enjoy getting yoru take on what goes into this stuff. The kid’s been begging me to take him to Walle.

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