6 Movies That Put Insane Work Into Stuff You Never Noticed
The weird thing about art is that you never notice the really important stuff. When you learn poetry in school, all the focus is on the technique, but when you actually hear a poem that really speaks to you, your first thought isn't "Wow, what a great use of metric irregularity!" It's "Yeah, man ... fuckin' plums. Right? That's what it's all about." Then you get laid, because understanding poetry gets you laid.
Movies are no different. We may not notice the really cool stuff that makes it great, but it's still there, and our brains notice. And sometimes it's a major pain in the ass.
Gravity Is Even More Insane Than You Thought
Gravity winning the visual effects Oscar is one of the few totally uncontroversial Oscar wins in history. The only people surprised by that name getting announced were the people who thought the movie was actually filmed in space.
Frankly, they can be forgiven.
But what does "incredible CGI" mean on an "actual work getting done" level? First of all, it meant that everything had to be meticulously planned from the beginning, so much so that they fully illustrated every scene before they started shooting. Director Alfonso Cuaron said that they could have released an animated version years before the movie was ever released, so just be thankful we never got our Treasure Planet version of Gravity. Second, it meant throwing the actors around on wires for really long takes, because that's Cuaron's jam. Sandra Bullock trained for five months to hang upside down without conveying the tension of the wires, and if that doesn't sound incredible to you, go hang upside down from a jungle gym for several hours while pretending to be weightless and let me know how your abs feel.
Abs are in your thighs, right? I have no idea what I'm talking about.
The most amazing part of that is, again, something you probably didn't even think about: Whenever you see one of the actors' faces inside their suits as they float through space, you probably assumed that they just "stuck the actors' face on their in post," because that's what they say all the time. In reality, getting that to work was such a complicated endeavor that they had to invent entirely new technology to create it. They called it "the light box," it involved a two-ton robot, and it killed a test dummy the day before they started shooting.
And the poor bastard didn't even get a dedication at the end.
Wreck-It Ralph References Every Video Game Ever
Look, I know my audience: You guys aren't going to be surprised to learn that Wreck-It Ralph references video games. Hell, that was half the fun.
Even Zangief's presence at the "Bad Anon" meeting has an awesomely nerdy explanation.
But the jokes are so deeply ingrained that you just know that half of them were thrown in simply because they made the illustrators giggle. For example, when King Candy hacks the game Sugar Rush so he can keep Vannelope from racing (because Ralph wants to win a medal, but he accidentally releases a Cy-Bug after he goes "turbo" and ... look, there's no way to describe this plot in a way that'll make sense to people who haven't seen it), a quick glance at his notes reveals that the game-breaking cheat he uses is none other than the famous Konami Code:
The most unrealistic part is that he'd have to write that down.
Too obvious, you say? Fine! What about the references to Final Fantasy VII and Zero Wing on the walls of Game Central Station?
"Game Central Station" references, of course, the existence of trains.
Oh, you caught those too, eh? Well, how about this one, smart guy? "Sheng Long Was Here":
That's a reference to a mistranslation of the term "Dragon Punch" in the Street Fighter II instruction manual, which was later exploited by Electronic Gaming Monthly in 1992 as an April Fool's joke that convinced everyone that Sheng Long was a hidden character that could only be unlocked by playing through the game without taking any damage 10 times in a row, then dodging the final boss' attacks (but not actually hitting him) until the timer ran out. Because back in 1992, video game magazines had only two goals: breaking hearts and ruining kids' psychosocial development by planting the idea that they could grow up to write about video games.
Adherence to proper form (as listed in the AP Style Guide: Internet Listicle Edition) would dictate that I end this entry with the best reference in the movie -- but there are just so many (the Sugar Rush game references Mario Kart by including a Rainbow Road-style track and making the karts spin out in the exact same way; the wall in Tapper's Bar is covered with photographs of iconic video game characters), and "best" with this kind of thing just means "the one that references the game you like most," so I'm going to end with my favorite, because I'm in charge here: a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of Sonic the Hedgehog getting smacked down and vomiting gold rings all over everything, just like he did in Sonic the Hedgehog.
I recognize that! Yay!
They Painted a Whole Set Sepia for The Wizard of Oz
There's a reason "We're not in Kansas anymore" is the most cliche way to announce that things have gotten freaky, and that's because the transition from sepia Kansas to Technicolor Oz in The Wizard of Oz is one of the raddest moments in movie history. I know it's weird for a straight 20-something guy to publicly ramble about the infectious wonder of a 1930s musical, but I don't care. It's still a great bit of cinema, a transition that wouldn't be possible in any other medium, simultaneously celebrating the magic of youthful imagination and cinema's constant technological march toward telling bigger and better stories.
"Also, the act of crushing people with houses and stealing their shit."
But ironically, the transition itself didn't use any kind of fancy technology at all: Instead of using clever editing techniques, the Wizard of Oz crew just painted an entire set sepia. Bobbie Koshay, Judy Garland's body double, stood in for Garland (again, completely covered in sepia paint) and allowed Garland to take her place after the camera moved into Oz by stepping out of frame for just a fraction of a second.
That's the thing about these old movies: They don't have that "How did they do that?" element -- we know that the Cowardly Lion is just an actor in a costume, the Tin Man and Wicked Witch are just actors covered in toxic paint, and the Scarecrow is just a guy trying to figure out his sexuality.
"Some people go "both ways!". We got you, Scarecrow.
And when I say "toxic paint," I'm not being cute: The first actor to play the Tin Man was replaced when he inhaled too much aluminum dust and almost died, and Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch, almost burned to death, but couldn't be treated until the copper-based paint was removed because it, quote, "would've killed the ever-loving shit out of her," unquote (that's not an actual quote). You think of filmmakers as working to figure out ways to use camera tricks to convince the audience things are happening, but back then we didn't have those tricks, so they just had to do it for real. Even if it meant people would almost die.
Thankfully, that kind of thing doesn't happen anymore.
Die Another Day References Every James Bond Movie That Came Before It
James Bond fans remember Die Another Day as "the one with that goddamn surfing scene" or "the one with the invisible fucking car." But the people who made that movie remember it differently. Die Another Day is the 20th Bond film in the franchise, and it had two goals: to remind everyone of the franchise's incredible legacy by referencing every single Bond film that came before it, and to reinvigorate the brand by appealing to a younger generation. They did exactly one of these things.
"Surfing's the hip new fad, right?" -a movie studio executive, in 2000-fucking-2.
But even though DAD has the outdated VFX and explosive stupidity of Dr. Kanaga's death evenly spread throughout the entire plot, its dedication to self-reference is actually sorta admirable. For example, Jinx's swimsuit is identical to the one Honey Rider wore in Dr. No -- as is her "I'm a sexy lady walking out of the water" introduction.
Over the years, Bond has matured from scaring the shit out of women to creepily watching them from the bar with binoculars.
Then he asks if the jet pack from Thunderball still works:
The original draft had the corpse of Desmond Llewelyn hanging there.
Later, Bond catches a ride on the HMS Tenby (the same ship he was "buried at sea" from at the beginning of You Only Live Twice), and the main antagonist tells Bond that "Diamonds are for everyone," because fuck subtlety at this point. There's also a Chinese character named Chang, just like in Tomorrow Never Dies, but that may be because the producers didn't know any other Chinese names.
In the end, I can't help but feel like all this self-reference only succeeded in reminding viewers how outdated James Bond had really become, and I guess the studio execs agreed: Four years later, they rebooted the entire franchise and stuck it full of timeless things that will always be cool, like parkour and Chris Cornell.
The Creator of Veep Broke into the U.S. State Department
Veep is basically House of Cards, except Elaine from Seinfeld is vice president and kicks low-level staffers off her plane as it's taxiing on the runway. Creator Armando Iannucci had previously created the comedy The Thick of It and a movie spinoff, In the Loop, the latter of which even starred Doctor Who's new Doctor. And since it was the kind of movie where people shout "What is this, Tinker Tailor Soldier Cunt?" we can have all kinds of fun pretending that they're going to be the same character.
The new Doctor, about to take on "hordes of fucking robots" in an objectively awesomer version of Doctor Who
than what we're actually going to get.
Since a part of In the Loop takes place in the U.S. capital, Iannucci decided to do some research, so he flew to Washington, D.C., threw together a forged press pass, and talked his way into the State Department. Actually, "Talked his way in" may be giving him too much credit -- he basically just said "I'm here for the 12:30" and walked right into one of the most sensitive and heavily guarded buildings in the country.
You can tell it's important because it's shaped like a throne.
Iannucci wandered around snapping pictures, and nobody was any wiser until he mentioned his break-in a year later at the Tribeca Film Festival, at which point the building overhauled their security. So if Iannucci wants to see the inside of any more important buildings, he'll have to wait until he gets an actual invitation from the Obama administration. Again.
The Dumbest Scene in Pacific Rim Was Done With Carefully Crafted Miniatures
Say what you will about Pacific Rim's script, acting, and realism (a smart person with tattoos? Come on, movie), the extended action sequence in Hong Kong is probably one of the most incredible ever put into a live-action movie -- which is ironic, considering that every detail of the entire bit was created on a computer. While most movies would've taken real background footage and projected CGI robots and monsters on top of it, Pacific Rim planned on destroying way too much of the city for any real footage to be useful, so every frame of every shot had to be rendered entirely from scratch. The only other option would've been to actually blow up Hong Kong, and even Pan's Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro isn't crazy enough to do that.
Yep, the whole thing was CGI -- except for one lonely, super dumb part. In this scene, Gipsy Danger (the heroic if somewhat racistly named robot) punches through a skyscraper and blasts through a whole line of cubicles before coming to a stop riiiight at the edge of a desk, just barely tapping it and setting a Newton's Cradle tapping away.
Instead of using their working-class dark wizard powers to create a digital office to punch apart, they built an entire miniature office, complete with papers, computers, and desk chairs. Because ... wait, I actually have no idea. Are desks and paper that much harder to render than cars, bricks, and broken glass? Did the roto artists threaten to revolt if they didn't get a week off? Did Del Toro owe his practical effects friends a favor? Whatever the reason, they put a lot of effort into making sure those tiny desks looked correct for the fraction of a split second they were on screen: Each piece of that office was carefully crafted so that it would break apart in a realistic way when the giant robot fist crashed through the window.
"Hey, jackass, why aren't Stenson's 1040 forms filled out in triplicate?"
Now that I've thought about it, I don't think this is the dumbest scene anymore -- it might actually be the symbolic core of the entire story. The set designers took the most humdrum details of modern life and carefully arranged them, by hand, only to punch them all apart with a giant robot fist. All, that is, except one -- your desk barely notices. Your desk gets tapped with just enough force to set your little toy going. Because that's what this movie is: a big, dramatic gesture that seems like it's going to completely reshape your world, but once all is said and done, it amounts to nothing more than passive entertainment. A brief distraction, no more or less significant than the soothing click of a metallic toy on the work desk of your life.
Yeah, this seems like a good place to stop.
JF Sargent has quite a few tattoos, so just relax. He also has a Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and sci-fi adventure novel that you can read for free.
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