Dear Orson

Note: Below you’ll find racist and homophobic language. These words were not originally used by me, and I never use such filth, but I happen to agree with Louis CK in the notion that the censored version of a word is as bad as the word itself. I take responsibility for the words below: if their presence offends you, I apologize. Please know that I do not use them lightly. These words are necessary for clarity, and so I feel they should be spelled out in full.

“Of course they can’’t let niggers use the beach at a Southern resort—can you imagine sensitive persons bathing near a pack of greasy chimpanzees? The only thing that makes life endurable where blacks abound is the Jim Crow principle, & I wish they’’d apply it in N.Y. both to niggers & to the more Asiatic type of puffy, rat-faced Jew. Either stow ‘em out of sight or kill ‘’em off—anything so that a white man may walk along the streets without shuddering nausea.” —H. P. Lovecraft, February 1925

“I think it is beyond doubt that H. P. Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” —Stephen King

“The dark secret of homosexual society—the one that dares not speak its name—is how many homosexuals first entered into that world through a disturbing seduction or rape or molestation or abuse, and how many of them yearn to get out of the homosexual community and live normally.” —Orson Scott Card, February 2004

When I was 12, I discovered the world of Ender’s Game. It was summer, and I was explicitly ignoring my assigned summer reading in favor of the things I wanted to read: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Heinlein and Asimov, and a new book from the library called Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Ender, the child prodigy main character, felt everything I felt as a kid. I was in accelerated academic programs, I was freakishly smart, I was… well, I was spending my entire summer vacation reading books. I felt the loneliness of intelligence, the impatience of youth, and Ender understood me.

In one scene in the book, Ender is forced to part ways with the first real friend he’s ever had. Alai, a talented young man of North African decent, embraces Ender, kisses him, and whispers, “Salaam, Ender.” Arabic for peace. The two are friends, but their fates are pulling them apart, and they both wish that they were someone different, in a different time, so they could stay close. Ender cried, and I did too.

There’s a long tradition in history and literature of evaluating people in slices without forgetting the whole. Authors and great historical figures have to be seen as people with flaws, but admired for the work they did and the impact they made. Thomas Jefferson was a patriot and a slave rapist. H. P. Lovecraft was a pioneer in the horror fiction genre and a breathtaking racist. Ben Franklin was an inventor and a womanizer. In literature, this is known as the death of the author: when a creator creates, their work is good or bad or transcendent based on the work and only the work.

Orson Scott Card is a despicable homophobe. He’s a bigot who is responsible for my favorite-ever books, and he uses the money he’s earned from entertaining the world to donate to horrible groups like the National Organization for Marriage. He wants laws against non-procreative sex to be enforced, and he’s worked (and failed) to make sure that gays never see the legal protections of marriage in America.

As I’ve become aware of this, I’ve become more and more conflicted about my love for Ender. Do I continue to recommend his books to friends exploring science fiction for the first time? Should I join in discussions of the book; should I write an essay about the treatment of memorials in Speaker for the Dead (as I did in high school)? The art is separate, and I love the art. Plus, it’s easy to go too far about this. Should I boycott books by religious authors, since I’m an atheist? Should I avoid movies created by outspoken Republicans if I am a liberal? You can’t police people’s thoughts, and great art is rare enough without more restrictions. I’m finding an author that I like, not auditioning for a new best friend.

But Card is still out there, and when I buy his books he earns royalties. My money is his money is NOMs money is spent to hurt people I care about. That’s more than red state/blue state disagreement. It’s unconscionable to me.

Ender’s Game, that transformative book of my youth, is now being made into a movie. It looks like everything I’ve always wanted my Ender’s Game movie to be.

I won’t go and see it.

When we separate the art from the artist, we are applying an artificial barrier that doesn’t exist in the wild. Contractual forces tie Card and Ender together, and what is good for one is good for the other. Card is co-producing the film, so he will almost definitely see a cut of the profits. Even if the movie never pays him a dime (if, say, his producer credit is purely ceremonial), his profile will be permanently raised by a successful blockbuster based on his series.

Card is in his sixties now, and odds are good that he will die long before me. I don’t wish him dead, you understand, it’s just a reality of mortality that he’ll probably go before I will. Maybe then, when his money can no longer hurt people I love, maybe then I’ll be able to buy a new copy of Ender’s Game to replace my dog-eared old paperback. Maybe then I’ll be able to see my old friend Ender again without feeling Card’s bigot eyes watching over us both.

Until then: thanks, but no. I’ll pass. Salaam, Orson. I wish that you were someone different.

The True Powers of Marriage

Earlier this week, my wife had a medical emergency. She’s fine and we’re fine (and thank you for your concern), but the details and traumas of that are not why I’m tapping eight hundred words into an iPad from a doctor’s office waiting room.

Unrelated: iPads are the worst thing for actual writing. Seriously awful.

I got the call while I was at work, and that was when I learned that Nicole was in the Emergency Room. I told my boss and sprinted out of the office in the middle of the afternoon. When I arrived at the hospital, I told the admittance nurse that I was Nicole’s husband, and she helped me find her. I told hospital security that I was her husband, and they let me into her private room. I told the doctor that I was her husband, and they shared medical information and made sure I was informed about her prognosis.

My wife was in the hospital for a little over 28 hours, and at no point did anyone ask me for an ID or a marriage license or ask me about our first date and the names of her cousins. We are different races and different sizes, but we wear the rings and took the vows and now “I’m the husband” are magic words that make doors open and paperwork appear.

When people talk about gay marriage, they talk about churches being forced to perform weddings they don’t consent to, which is just bullshit that will never happen. Churches are still free to turn away couples who don’t conform to their religious standards, even if those religious standards include not liking black people. I saw someone lamenting that cake decorators would have to stock up on groom and groom cake toppers since all the gays are going to be getting hitched now. We talk about wedding planners being sued for not organizing an event for two women, as if that’s the part that matters. It’s not.

Marriage really counts when the shit hits the fan. When I got that call, everyone from my boss at work to the administrators at the hospital to the management at Nicole’s work respected the fact that when I spoke, I was the husband, and I had the power to speak for my wife. With that power I cancelled her doctor’s appointments, called in sick to her work, and filled her prescriptions, including meds that are controlled substances.

It is impossible to keep two people, any two people, from falling in love if they want to be in love. I invite you to try. People of the “wrong” tribe, the “wrong” family, the “wrong” color, the “wrong” religion, and the “wrong” gender have always fallen in love, and they always will. Could someone talk you out of your love for someone? Once you recognize that fact, it is barbaric, it is wrong, it is evil to allow people to love each other without also letting them speak for each other.

DOMA and Prop 8 were struck down a week ago, but 37 states still refuse to license gay marriages or recognize gay marriages performed in other states and countries. Indiana just made it a felony to apply for a marriage certificates while under the influence of The Gay. It’s great that the federal government no longer discriminates, but the real mess of life, the illnesses and burials and births and divorces, happen on the local level in local hospitals, and before local judges.

Here in Texas we have some real assholes in government. I know, because my representatives are some of the biggest bigots and cowards in the lot. The only way this changes is if we get involved and let people know that even (especially?) in Texas, we aren’t OK with this nonsense. We’ve already tried the systemic subjugation and the separate-but-equal dance numbers, and neither of them worked out well for us.

Since Nicole came home, we still have a lot of work to do, a lot of doctors appointments to meet, and a lot more prescriptions to fill. I keep flexing these powers of marriage like they’re going out of style, and I keep glancing through the looking glass to a reality where I don’t have them. If Nicole had been born a Nick or I was born an Irene and we met at middle school band camp and fell in love in high school and dated through college and everything was the same except for our gametic gene expressions, where would we be now, two gay kids in the Dallas suburbs? If she had never come home, would I have been allowed in the hospital room to say good-bye? If I don’t come home tomorrow, will she be evicted from our new house?

I can’t stand to think about it, and the beauty of my straight privilege is that I don’t have to. My house is my castle and I’ve got 200 years of American case law and 2,000 years of Western civilization built into what it means to be “married.”  That meaning is starting to get a little bigger, and that’s a great thing. It just can’t happen soon enough.

Edie and Thea

Warren Spector Was Right

Games design legend Warren Spector—whose resume includes a few little things like Deus Ex, Thief and Wing Commander—turned heads a couple of weeks ago when he railed against the trailer for the Wolfenstein reboot, Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Posting to Facebook (and typing from his iPhone, just to put the statement in its full and proper context), Spector wrote:

Did the world really need another Wolfenstein game? Did we need a generically dark, monochromatic, FPS, kill-the-Nazi-giant-robot game? Uh. No. The world did not. I am so tired of stuff like this.

Sidebar: These images are all from different games.

This lit the world on fire a little bit, because when a guy like Spector says something about video games, everyone stops to listen. And although 2009’s Wolfenstein was uninspired, the series dives into alternate histories and plays with elements of science-fiction and horror—hardly the cookie-cutter, real-world shooting game that so many people are tired of.

Spector elaborated on his initial comments in the ensuing Facebook comment thread, which was filled with a hundred comments after only a few hours. What steams Spector is the ubiquity and homogeneity of generic shooter titles at the expense of all other kinds of games.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t be allowed to make or play stuff like this, but I reserve the right to be depressed about it and to wish games supported a more diverse range of styles and content.

As his comments began to be reported in the gaming press, Spector wrote a much longer explanation in a comments thread at Destructoid.

Anyone want to deny it’s a shooter? Anyone want to deny it’s using a monochromatic color palette? Anyone want to defend the ‘in a world where…’ narration? Does anyone look at the state of the industry and, leaving indie stuff aside, the major publishers are pushing much besides shooters, sports and action-rpgs?

But Warren, if you’re setting aside indie stuff, sports stuff and action-RPG stuff, you are setting aside an awful lot of stuff. All of that stuff is where the meat of PC gaming is happening every day. Dear Esther was a first-person walker with no enemies and no guns. Torchlight is an action-RPG that out-Diablo’d Diablo. FTL put you in command of a starship as the entire universe tried to kill you. The Walking Dead put you in the lead role of a cell-shaded moving comic book. All of these games, great and small, were commercially successful and helped push modern gaming in new directions.

There’s a renaissance going on right now in PC gaming, and focusing on the frequently bland world of AAA publishers is basically just complaining that the world isn’t changing fast enough for your tastes. The variety and quality of games coming through independent developers and non-traditional publishing venues like Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight is unprecedented, and that’s a thing that should be celebrated more than it is.

Army of Two

Pictured: Bros

Spector is right about the stuffiness of the AAA game market. Most games are able to sell millions of copies on launch day only if they appeal to every possible person with a PC or gaming console in their house. Distressingly, these games do this by being about large men firing large guns at large enemies, usually in the future, usually with a snarky, foul-mouthed bro in attendance.  This trope is so well established that whole games are built on it: the new expansion for Far Cry 3, Blood Dragon, is an 80s-tastic parody of the adolescent male power-fantasy problem.

But is it really fair to launch that attack from Wolfenstein’s back, considering that the game doesn’t exist yet? This angst is an incredibly premature reaction based solely on a trailer that doesn’t show any gameplay or finalized art.

There’s being right and then there’s picking your moment. I think Spector took his very reasonable frustrations and took them out on a game that has at least a possibility to reintroduce us to interesting locations and novel gameplay designs.

And, after a day’s worth of abuse, Spector came to pretty much the same conclusion. He apologized in a follow-up post:

I owe the Wolfenstein team an apology. And to everyone who pointed out that I didn’t know enough about the game to judge, well, you were right. Consider this my mea culpa.

I hope the conversation doesn’t end there, though. I hope that the same people who wrote to Spector in defense of Wolfenstein also paid attention when he said this:

I’ll stand by my overall statement about lack of variety and innovation in mainstream gaming. I was simply expressing, once again, my long-held belief that we make too many shooters, lots of which look, sound and feel like basically the same game dressed up in different clothes.

One Day That Wall Is Gonna Fall: Bastion Reviewed

This is a video game review that is mostly a music review. To get the full flavor, change tracks as you reach them. Trust me, it’s worth it.

First, click to start this song: 

Now, the review:

BastionThe video game industry has exploded in the last few years as independent development becomes easier, cheaper, and more freely available. While multibillion dollar studios still exist and game projects with budgets the size of Hollywood blockbusters still thrive, this is no longer the only way on earth to make a game. This is a boon for gamers, as indie megahits like Minecraft, Super Meat Boy, and Braid make their way directly from small teams of creators to the public. Smaller games gather their own audiences and groundswells, and ideas proliferate until not even professional games industry critics can play everything. There are so many games to play already, and every year the quality and quantity of the selection increases exponentially.

All of this is to say, basically, that Bastion is the best game that I should have played two years ago, but didn’t.

What is most remarkable about Bastion is the music and sound design. The Bastion soundtrack has been universally praised since release, even beating out the iconic Portal 2 theme by Jonathan Coulton in the Spike Video Game Awards. The game itself is colorful, lively, and fun to play, but Bastion wouldn’t have been the hit it became without the musical influence of musician Darren Korb.

Darren Korb

Korb must be some kind of mad genius. His work on Bastion was his first project in video game music design, and to hit such a home run on the first try is breathtaking. Korb applied his talent as a composer and musician and just started writing songs. Rather than make all of the music sound the same with endlessly looping mood pieces, Korb invented a musical genre for all of the game music to fit into for a unified, signature sound. What he came up with is a sign of Korb’s genius, a style he calls Acoustic Frontier Trip-hop. Imagine a world where Firefly meets manga meets industrial rock concert. Japanese shamisen and wounded bass lines call out the sound of a dark saloon where a geisha slams back a shot of whiskey, whips up a chain gang with an old slave work spiritual, and everyone pitches in to clean up the morning after a Sex Pistols blowout. It’s bizarre, but goddamn it sounds nice.

What I didn’t understand during my time with the game was just how central to the design the music really was. According to his speech to the crowd at the Game Developers Conference 2012, Korb was tapped to provide the music so early in the design process that his finished songs were some of the first creative assets to be shared with the team. As a result, Korb’s decision to invent his own musical genre to evoke a sense of place influenced the rest of their team in their work on creating that setting. The tone and flavor of the backdrop became the foundation for the world itself.

Korb also brought the game’s signature narrator came to life. Reaching across the hallway, Korb asked his roommate, actor Logan Cunningham, to take a shot at providing the voice of the narrator. The development team liked the result so much that they seized on this arrangement as one of the core strengths of their development. As creative director Greg Kasavin explained in an interview:

One of those advantages was, ‘Hey, our audio director, who is a very talented musician, is roommates with a guy who has an amazing voice and is an amazing actor. So, first of all, why don’t we do something with voice, and why don’t we push on that as hard as possible, because they can record whenever? It’s just Logan going into Darren’s closet and recording stuff.’ Whereas even for a triple-A studio, the logistics of setting up a recording session are incredibly difficult. So we realised it was an area in which we could compete against the big studios head-on.

With that realization, the reactive narrator was born. Throughout the game, over 3,000 lines of dialog unspool as the narrator, Rucks, guides the player through the story. The reactive narrator is incredibly effective as a way for the game to pay attention to the player and provide them immediate feedback. If the player spends time goofing around, the narrator makes fun of it. If the player falls off a ledge, the narrator jokes that the character died and the story is over. In providing detailed, personal feedback, the story becomes the player’s own.

(Stop the first track if it hasn’t ended already)

(Now click this one)

This new way of building an interactive world comes to a head with the level “Prosper Bluff.” The highlight of the Bastion soundtrack, “Zia’s Theme (Build That Wall),” begins to play in the distance, sung by a stooped and lonely singer. The level is designed to bring the player in and out of range of the figure crooning in the center. This spiraling, twisting level was built specifically to deliver Zia’s quiet, mourning acoustic solo in waves, a stanza at a time. In a game where the musical genre influenced the color palette, this is a level built by the lyrics.

The “video games as art” discussion has been going on for some time. Bluntly, I don’t see how video games can be anything other than art—after all, “if a hundred artists create art for five years, how could the result not be art?” That said, I understand that skeptics are watching the game world for something more artistic than grunting supermarines sawing an alien in half with a shattered bottle of Mountain Dew. They aren’t convinced that realistic breast jiggling physics (Ugh.) show the same commitment to self-expression as the post-impressionist movement. I get it. Really, I do.

What is art?

Bastion is art.

Bastion is a symphony with introductions and characters and themes and returning, twisting motifs. As gamers fight for our hobby to find some recognition, some purchase in the world of respectable artistic expression, it is games like Bastion that will help cross that gap.

One day, that wall is gonna fall. We’ll be there before too long.

The Kid

A Sublime Self-Isolation

The best hoodies in America: American Giant

For most of last week, I spent my days and nights feeling miserable, creating a lasting butt impression on my living room couch, and snuggling down into my favorite hooded sweatshirt.

It is faded and has a torn pocket, and when I bought it ten years ago it celebrated a season of coming changes to the theatrical program at the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London—changes that, I assume, have long since come and gone.

The hoodie is quintessential working-class American style. The hoodie originated with the working men of upstate New York, where even the sweatiest, nastiest job must continue to be performed in the coldest, darkest depths of a winter that lasts from September to June.

I love hoodies. I am never more comfortable than when in jeans and a hoodie, and my love of these artifacts of underdog fashion only intensified when I became active in a martial arts community that loves its custom sweatshirts. It doesn’t matter that forty years have passed—every martial artist I’ve ever met is still trying to be Rocky Balboa.

The hoodie has acquired a bad reputation and this trend has accelerated in recent years, particularly overseas. In England, wearing a hoodie is like wearing a prison jumpsuit. The perception has become so common that shops have banned hoodies and track pants, because that’s what the criminals are always wearing. I don’t think I need to spend a lot of time on why this is pretty dumb.

Without the hood itself, the hoodie would be nothing. And while, yes, a hood can be used to provide a thin layer of anonymity for crime, the positive uses of the hood are more numerous and effective. From protecting your face from sleet and wind to diving into a needed refuge of sublime self-isolation, the hood has been used by travelers and penitents and workers for hundreds of years.

The next time you use public transport, do a quick headcount of your fellow travelers who have chosen to fill their ears with their private soundtracks, personalized radio programs, or audiobooks. Are they any less isolated just because their faces are visible? When we have no privacy, we erect walls within our minds. This is the way of modern humans just as it was the way of monks in crowded abbeys centuries ago. By shrouding your face, you retreat into a privacy of your own making.

That privacy could be for healing or for meditation or for relaxation. Either way, it is a wall put up by choice to keep the outside world at bay. It is the cowl of modern times, the proverbial “little house” in which we choose to be ourselves.

Fancy talk aside, I’m as stylish as a math teacher at a middle school Sadie Hawkins dance. I thought I’d better check in with my friend, sartorial expert and world-class human, Jeff Dill. He weighed in thusly:

The truth is that the hoodie is the uniform of practicality and honest labor, the modest Medieval Franciscan robes of 21st century America, the new blue-collar habit. It’s suited to a wide variety of conditions and contexts; it’s simple, comfortable, and unpretentious.

There you have it. I’m practically a monk.

The fantastic Marian Wright Edelman

With a Sickness

I get up early, and the sky is dark and the wife is fast asleep. I grab a glass of water and sit at the computer to get some editing done and catch up on the news.

The world outside starts to brighten and wake up, and one of the dogs runs to the back door and barks at something. I look over at him, look back, and the whole world spins in a nasty little circle.

What the hell was that?

#

The doctor says I have a stomach bug that’s been going around, but I’ve got an extra special bonus version: the virus has set up a secondary infection in my inner ear. This is a fascinating and disturbing turn of events, and I don’t really want to think too hard about how an intestinal virus finds its way to your ear.

Doc hooks me up with some nausea meds that work immediately, but the world keeps spinning and jumping.

#

Nicole is pretty worried. I violated my only health care rule, the Three Day Rule: If it hurts or feels bad, wait three days before going to the doctor. It’s amazing how many minor aches and pains and illnesses can be treated with some rest and food, and it saves a lot of expensive trips to the doctor.

That first morning, I sat on the couch with the walls scrolling past for half an hour before I begged for a doctor.

#

New vertigo meds come and go after my second doctor appointment in two days, and they don’t make a dent. What I’ve got is called Labyrinth syndrome, and the inflammation in my inner ear is screwing up my equilibrium in a fantastic and debilitating way. I’ve become a permanent fixture on the couch, my head firmly pressed against the armrest in an effort to keep Earth from bouncing around so goddamn much.

#

It’s closing day for our new house, so I take some pills and sit in the car with my eyes closed while Nicole drives carefully across town.

We walk with her arm around my waist, which would be sweet if she wasn’t holding my belt loops to keep me from falling into a lusty kiss with the sidewalk.

I sign a paper that says we will pay a monthly mortgage until April 2043, but I can’t make sure that everything is in order because the words are dancing around the page, a private and unwanted performance of the short from Fantasia where the sheet music comes alive.

#

I can’t move. Breathing makes me nauseated. The frantic thud of my heart makes my skeleton pulse, and the movement is like going over a speed bump sideways, one tire at a time.

I’m lying on the floor because I couldn’t make it to bed. The sky falls around me from right to left only to lurch back to the start and fall again. Nicole puts a blanket over me and we talk about going to the ER.

#

After I assure the technician that I don’t have any body piercings or metallic implants, he sits me on a cheap plastic bench that slides effortlessly into a billion-dollar supermagnet. I keep my head perfectly still so the tumors or whatever it is that is eating my brain will show up clearly in the contrast. I think about my dad’s many, many MRI scans during his aggressive cancer treatments and the fourteen-hour surgery that saved his life. I think about the day that he asked me to write his eulogy if he never woke up, and in the claustrophobic beige body coffin I listen to the machines taking pictures of my skull.

Steel plates whir and click and set off a machine-gun rattle, an atonal dubstep that never drops the base. After each round of clanking and slamming, the rattling of Jacob Marley’s hellish chains pauses for a message from the Windows XP alert tone, a sunny little bong so incongruous and insane that I have to bite back a laugh.

#

No tumors are found and I try not to feel ridiculous for my freak-out. The fears of the MRI chamber fade quickly, and I’m cleared to go on a powerful string of steroids. A few hours after the first dose, I open my eyes to find that, for the first time in three days, the earth stands still.

The steroids keep me awake for almost two days straight, but since I’m awake I can enjoy the fact that the ground stays flat below my feet and the walls never melt around me. I stay up all night writing and reading while the sky is dark and the wife is fast asleep.

In Defense of Practical Effects: Oz the Great and Powerful Reviewed

China Girl

There’s a moment halfway through Oz, the Great and Powerful where Oz meets an adorable living china doll. She is scared and hidden in the dark corner of a broken house, and she is the first opportunity for Oz to do some real good in this colorful new world.

Oh, how I wish she would have stayed in that house with her legs snapped off.

It’s not that the character is bad — she isn’t. It’s not that the voice acting isn’t good — it is! I pick on the China Girl as a symptom of a deeper disease that makes this movie a truly mediocre waste of time.

The problem with the China Girl is that every time she’s on screen interacting with other actors, the CGI involved is as competent as a high school media project. The lighting on the doll doesn’t match the lighting on the actors, and James Franco in particular seems incapable of pretending he’s holding a doll in his hand. This leads to a number of scenes where Franco tries desperately to cup his hands to nestle a China doll’s butt without letting his talent trickle out from between his fingers. As he walks across the room, his hand and the doll move independently of one another like the animated background in a Scooby Doo cartoon.

These kids don’t know it, but they are better actors than James Franco.

Before long, I was convinced that the special effects were placed lovingly by the same photo techs who digitally insert Tinkerbell into Disney World vacationers’ family photos.

Technology changes, and it does so every day. As it grows, the urge to use technology grows with it, and film producers are compelled to look for ever-newer, ever-flashier, ever-more expensive ways to depict the fantastic characters in their movies. This is a symptom of big Hollywood productions in that, in every way, Oz, the Great and Powerful is supposed to be a great movie simply because it was so very expensive.

Even though it cost $215 million dollars, Oz has more than turned a profit in the first two weeks of worldwide release. It is the biggest hit of 2013 and continues to dominate the box office and probably won’t slow down for a while. But why so much money on such bad effects?

This idea shows up everywhere in this movie. A good script with a better story can only soak up so much of the budget — after all, you can only pay writers so much before they’re just getting spoiled. But 100 graphic artists and computer animators dissecting and recoloring and animating every frame of a two-hour movie? Now we’re talking about some serious change.

This mentality seeps into other parts of the production as well. On several occasions, the actors are shown in profile as shadows against a wall or as silhouettes in front of a setting sun, and for some bizarre reason these scenes are again animated in CGI, and they are done very poorly. The animations blend seamlessly from a real person doing real things on a set to a pre-render glitch reel from the cutting floor of Nightmare Before Christmas.

Why not put an actor in makeup, point a spotlight at them, and film the wall of the set? Why not spend a little money buying an actual china doll and then animating the mouth and using digital effects to erase the wires? At least then she’d fit in poor Franco’s hand.

There’s a reason why the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park from twenty years ago look and move better than the dinosaurs in last year’s stinker Terra Nova. Even though true computer animation has been invented, pioneered, professionalized, and matured in the last two decades, it still can’t match the real quality impact of a hand-made, hand-illustrated model. A guy in a rubber suit made Alien the archetypal horror classic, while $130 million couldn’t save Prometheus from the trashbin of broken dreams.

attack_the_blockIndependent film hit Attack the Block introduced the world to a horrifying cast of aliens that began as actors in gorilla costumes slamming around the set. After filming, the glowing teeth and matte-black fur was added in post-production. Regarding the cost of the aliens and the success of their overall look, director Joe Cornish said:

I knew [the aliens] had to be practical. I knew we couldn’t afford CGI creatures. And I wanted them to be practical, because I love the practical work in movies that I saw when I was growing up. I wanted to use some digital, but with a lightness of touch. I always feel digital is best used to enhance what’s already present, than to create it from the ground up.

The results are breathtaking. The young actors on set admit that they felt intimidated and scared of the creatures, even though they knew they were just actors in stupid suits. They were reacting with fear to real monsters, and their performances are worth it.

Maybe less is more. Maybe practical effects with digital polish is the way to go. Maybe Hollywood should start taking lessons from the Indie film scene and start restraining budgets to unleash creative solutions.

Then again, maybe Oz is going to turn a profit big enough to fund a manned mission to Mars. Maybe Attack the Block lost $8 million of its production budget despite being critically acclaimed. Maybe what’s good for profit isn’t what’s good for art, and Disney film executives and I are just looking at opposite sides of the memo.