Monday, May 4, 2009

Killing the Hollywood orcs

Most of the Internet, at least the nerdishly-inclined parts, have now probably seen The Hunt For Gollum, the 40 minute fan film created by a pack of crazed Brits. And boy, was I surprised as I watched the trailer and the film itself.

Yeah, it's pretty good, especially for something that apparently cost just 3,000 pounds, or about $4,400 US. You couldn't do the catering for a movie in Hollywood for that little. But, as a fan film, no one drew a salary and the producers begged, borrowed and stole before they shelled out money. That's just standard.

What's not standard is the overall quality. It's only a degree less professional looking than Peter Jackson's films. The orcs look like orcs, not like guys with Halloween masks. The Rangers are wearing realistic weapons and gear. The beautiful scenery is lovingly filmed. There are aerial shots of snow-capped peaks which they got from... where? Who cares? It looks damn good.

The plot is drawn from the appendices to the Lord of the Rings, and it's briefly referenced within the films itself. Gandalf warns Aragorn that there's this nasty little post-Hobbit thing called Gollum and that it's making its way towards the Shire, searching for its lost ring. Meanwhile, Sauron's troops are massing and may be looking for Gollum. Gollum can't be captured by the orcs, or the enemy will know where to find the ring.

Aragorn heads out and tracks Gollum, first by rumour, then by luring him into a trap. Gollum spends most of the rest of the film in a burlap sack, because no matter how well funded the film is, you just can't motion capture Andy Serkis for 30 minutes. That's going to blow your budget.

The remainder of the film is orcs hunting Aragorn while Gollum tries to escape. There are several moments of real tension, the acting is creditable, and the director clearly knows more than which way to point the cameras. And there's a massive fight scene in which Aragorn takes on a patrol of about a dozen orcs and kills them all.

The fight scene needs a little more attention. I'm actually going to argue that the fight scene in The Hunt for Gollum is slightly better than most of the fight scenes in the actual LotR films.

Whoa, whoa, hold up! It's not about the skills of stuntmen or the ability of the fight coordinators. It's about directorial choices. With a few cool exceptions, Peter Jackson belongs to the quick cuts school of fight direction. You will occasionally see a cool moment, like Legolas stabbing an orc with an arrow, then shooting it into the next orc, or Aragorn jamming a torch into a Ring Wraith's face. But more often, you get a bunch of guys running at each other and then there's some sword swinging, some quick cuts, sound effects and screams, and an orc keels over. You don't see move-countermove very often. The Hunt for Gollum has just one big fight scene, and it has several cool fight combos packed in, including the skewering of two orcs, and the final boss fight with the patrol leader. It's a good fight scene for any movie, let alone a fan film!

It's only in one way that The Hunt for Gollum disappoints, and that's in the way it falls into the fanfic trap. This part of the tale, Aragorn's search for Gollum, really isn't necessary. It's filling in a blank spot in the story that could have been left blank. We already know how everyone's story here ends. I'd frankly rather have seen a story from another chunk of Middle Earth's history, maybe with original characters. Still, it made my geeky heart glad, and I was quite happy to let it entertain me for 40 minutes.

On the other hand, this film should have Hollywood quaking just as much as the Pirate Bay does. The entertainment industry's been so focused on cracking down on illegal downloading that they haven't bothered to look at the other side of the equation: what happens when anyone with a dream, a couple of credit cards and a gaggle of willing volunteers can make something that looks this damn good?

In the past, Hollywood wasn't threatened by people who made legendarily cheap films. Robert Rodriguez made El Mariachi for $7,000, but his goal was to become a professional film maker. So Hollywood could deal with him. He wanted to join the club. 

What do you do with people who have no interest in joining the club? I'm sure some of the folks in The Hunt for Gollum want to move on to "real" acting, makeup, or stunt work, and probably some of them already are in the field. But a lot of them just did it because they love LotR. There are fan film communities for every big cult property out there, from Star Wars to Star Trek to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And time I spend watching fan films is time I spend not watching professionally made, for profit stuff. Eyeballs equals money.

Hollywood keeps telling us they're struggling to make money because of piracy (and we're not far from the point where every shack in the Sahel can download and watch Wolverine and Transformers 2). Meanwhile there are gangs of film makers who learned their trade as unpaid volunteers and do it for the love of making a movie. If the quality of amateur film rises while the financial rationale for professional film plunges, it could really upend the entire Hollywood system. I doubt that we'll ever see a day when nobody makes money off of films. But we could be close to a day when fewer people make a lot less money, even as we get a lot more movies available to us, the fans.

The next 10 years are going to be really interesting.

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