Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Camera Angles

Of late, I have been working my way through the series, Agents of Shield.  I like the actor Clark Gregg, who plays Phil Coulson . . . I have liked him since he used to turn up occasionally on The West Wing, when he played pretty near the same character.  I don't care about that.  I like the character.

I'm not liking the show, however.  It suffers from being on television.  And by that I mean, it has phrases and exposition and characterization that exist only so the really stupid people watching won't change the channel.  Example?  Some scientist on the show spits out a bunch of nonsense technical speak, and the inserted dumb character on the show says, "Um, High School drop out here."  I swear, that's an actual quote.  It's supposed to be funny, but it really just says, "There are a lot of high school drop-outs watching without any I.Q., including the producer, who is the son of a network executive, who has final approval of the show, so could we please dumb this down for a significant portion of our audience?"

Result?  About 10% of the show's dialogue is stated twice.  Once for the smart people, and once for the stupid people.  This is why I don't like television.

Film seems to be divided much more clearly between audiences.  A film is either made by morons, or made exclusively for morons, and thus it can be avoided easily.  Certain directors and actors can be found only in moron-made films, like a big sign that says, "Don't see this if you have a brain."

Alternately, there are films that clearly don't give a crap if dumb people watch.  Sadly, there aren't enough of them, and every now and then a smart director will go right up their own asshole.  So we can never be sure.

This all has something to say about players.  The DM presents the game for the players, and so the DM is in the same position as television and film.  Some of the players are smarter than others.  Some of the players aren't able to communicate as easily.  They find it difficult to focus their attention on a person's words.  What do we do about this?

Television has long taken the attitude that shows must be reduced to the lowest common denominator, there aren't very many smart people anyway, and our biggest sponsors are those who sell to lower class, non-professional, ignorant consumers.  So write off smart people and keep it simple, stupid.

Film has approached it more like a DM would if that DM were to say, "You're too stupid for this campaign, get out."  Or, "You're too serious about this campaign, get out."  Having observed the players, and having decided what the game shall focus on, the players who don't fit the mold are pushed out of the group by a variety of peer pressures.

But this is what we do with our friendships, isn't it.  Jim doesn't like drinking at the bar?  Fuck Jim.  Marie doesn't like rafting?  Fuck Mary.  And so on.

The main problem with this is that Joe pretends to like drinking at the bar, and Marie pretends to like rafting, because if they don't pretend, they're going to spend that day alone.  And no one likes to be alone.  Being alone is worse than rafting or heavy drinking.  And after a lifetime, both Jim and Marie have gotten good at pretending to smile and nod their heads and go through the motions, and making up excuses for why they're not smiling like, "Oh, things have been bad at work lately."  Or, "I'm worried about my . . ." (insert family member, pet or material value here).

Because humans are like this, the usual result is six people on rafts drifting along a slow river and getting sunburns because ONE person really likes rafting, and knows how to manipulate the others.  And each person who doesn't like it thinks they're the only one who doesn't, so that they spend the whole day being miserable and pretending with one another, never realizing that there's a consensus here they'll never identify.

The reader, I hope, sees the problem.

If you are the DM of the group, YOU are the person that really likes rafting.  You love your world.  And you have a lot of players who really want to role-play.  Your world is what they have.  They see others enjoying your world - or appearing to enjoy your world - so they cram down their own displeasure and keep playing.

Some of the people in your world probably like your world.  Some, however, probably don't.  And here's the thing - you won't be able to tell the difference.

Let me pull this back to film again.  I've seen a lot of bad art films, awful, boring, pretentious art films, but there is something that's always true about them.  People LOVE them.  I've never been clear why.  The people themselves never seem very deep.  Many of them are vaguely artistic, but like people with their own table at a Comix Expo, they don't get formal training and they don't seem concerned about technique. Where discussing the film, they speak in vague, generalized terms, like the 'acting' or the 'presentation' or 'camera angles' and the like - things that are wholly subjective.  Why one camera angle is crazily superior to another is often lost on me - not always, but often.  The shot across Anne Bancroft's legs at a tiny Dustin Hoffman makes perfect sense:

Remember, this is the woman who married Mel Brooks,
and gave birth to the author of World War Z

The shot is obviously about lust, impotence, youth and so on.  Ben in the film is a little boy.  During the scene above, Ben has already slept with Mrs. Robinson several times, and he's trying to relate intellectually with her.  He can't, of course, because she's smarter than he is, she's in control, she knows the effect of her sexuality and he's completely hopeless.  That is why this particular shot is famous and easy to find.

Most clever camera angles, however, are really just camera angles.  They barely do a good job of showing what's going on.  But hell, do faux film lovers love them!

Okay, I'm off topic.  I'm going up my own asshole.  I'll get this back in line.

The thing about 'smart' art films, and the lovers of art films, is that they are about pretension.  Not the pretence of liking film, but the pretence of liking film that is too 'smart' for stupid people.  Oh, it was boring? That is because you're stupid.  Oh, it seemed to lack a plot?  You only thought that because you're stupid. And so on.

If you will look around at the Internet, you'll see the same attitude used to defend a lot of worlds.  You think story arcs are railroading?  That's because you're stupid.  You think a DM shouldn't fudge the dice?  That's because you're stupid.  And so on.

The final pitch I am making here is for honesty.  Television and movies that are clearly made for stupid people is at least honest.  Television that wants to be made for smart people, but doesn't want to leave the dumb people behind, is effectively dishonest.  Art films that are deliberately made to be irrational, so that a host of pretentious people can claim the importance of camera angles, are fundamentally dishonest.  And thinking that everyone at your table loves your world, because they appear and play every week  . . . that is your version of camera angles.  You're only seeing what you want to see.

Hm.  That sounded like a much better conclusion when I started out this post than it does now.

I don't want to be dishonest.  That really sucked.  Sometimes, you start off with the best of intentions, but it just goes . . . nowhere.

Okay.  Not enjoying Agents of Shield.  Watching it for the actor.  Working on a section about getting to understand your players and the importance of engaging them in your game.  Getting some of my thoughts onto the blog.  Take it for what it was worth.  I'll have something better tomorrow.


James said...

I think your analogy and your start point are about two completely different things, and the analogy especially I think was on the edge of a much larger point.

The point you seemed to be starting to make was that many DMs choose to run games appealing to the lowest common denominator, just like television, when games would be better off being honest and thus outright excluding certain people, like film.

The analogy, though, trailed off into I think a much more interesting direction. The analogy seemed to indicate that everyone at a game, player and DM, has varying levels of interest/disinterest, but because of that desire to not be alone, they feign interest. And many issues in gaming groups can be tied to the simple fact that not everyone has the same level of investment. And the easy, go-to answer, is "talk to your players," but because of the desire to not be alone, and the fear that they are alone in their thoughts, no one will voice their real opinion.

So instead, they keep pretending and the DM can't understand why they can't ever seem to remember that your roll the d20 to attack, while the player silently thinks "because I can't be bothered to remember and I have nowhere else to be."

Jeremiah Scott said...

I have to disagree with such a sweeping statement about art films. I love art films (I haven't always, but I do now) for a few reasons:

1. They seem to be the last bastion of creativity. I can only see so many Marvel movies and reboots that recycle the same plot over and over. Hollywood movies generally contain all the same characters, doing the same predictable things.

2. Art films don't exist for the sole purpose of making money, so they can take risks. Now, I'm definitely not against making money. But when the bottom line is all that matters to you, you're going to make compromises that will dilute the movie.

3. Art films aren't easy to make, because you don't have Hollywood throwing money at you. Of course, Hollywood movies are hard to make to, but for different reasons. Art films are a labor of love to make, and that passion usually translates to the screen.

4. As you said in your post, they make you work for it, which in itself is pleasurable. They don't feel the need to force feed you their plot-driven, technobabble drivel.

What I think you perceive as pretension from art film lovers is really the fact that, once you've experienced real outrageous creativity, you can't stomach the same shit from big movie houses anymore. I say, it's not that the camera angles used in art films are better, it's that they're different...not the same recycled setups over and over and over, with the same blue and orange camera filters on top of it all. Yuck.

Of course, there are definitely bad art films. Plenty of them. But if I'm going to put down my money on watching a movie I'm not absolutely certain I want to see, then I'd rather take that risk with an art film any day.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Alexis! There's one point you make, though, that I disagree with:

"Some of the people in your world probably like your world. Some, however, probably don't. And here's the thing - you won't be able to tell the difference."

I think there are times you CAN tell the difference between someone who likes your world and someone who does not.

There have been several occasions where a player has "acted out," doing some very passive-aggressive things to mess with me, the flow of the game, etc. I think this acting out due to "hatred" of a setting/campaign is the genesis of stories we hear of "problem players." Instead of leaving the game (for fear of not finding another one/being alone, as you say above), they stick with the game they don't like, but they lack the self-awareness/self-control to keep their displeasure from manifesting in some way.

So, for example, you may have a "rules lawyer" player who is actually an anal rule Nazi but likes your world, or you may have a rules lawyer who is acting that way just because they don't like your world.

Jeremiah Scott said...

I should add that, I agree with your comparison of film to DMing. You have to know your audience for sure. And, it can be cerebral, but you can't be a hack.

Anonymous said...

Just to clarify my point above, I think some people can hide their displeasure with a GM's world (i.e. they maintain a pleasant demeanor, etc.) and some cannot. We can distinguish those who do not like a GM's campaign world by observing their behavior (i.e. they are disruptive to the game in some way).

Alexis Smolensk said...

Regarding art/non-art films.

Art films first.

There are many very good art films. One of my favorites would be Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, that comes to mind again and again as I contemplate issues with fame and audience interpretation. To that I'll add Catch-22, Brazil and Being John Malkovich. Sometimes, a point can only be made with an art film.

However, many art films (and I will resist giving examples) highlight one very simple, very obvious element of the human condition, one which any introspective person already knows, and proceeds to hammer it into the ground as though this were some 'miraculous insight' that only came into being because the director 'dared' to make a film about it. Something like, death is bad. People are lonely. Ambitions are dashed. Etc.

Then, painfully, the art crowd proceeds to preach about the 'beauty' of this insight, as though no one had ever realized that this was a truth before, elevating a film that is about ONE THING, having repeated the one relevant truth about that ONE THING for three goddamned hours, without having offered anything except that the ONE THING exists.

Art films usually fail with me because, first, the insight is not new to me, and second, because no SOLUTION is offered regarding the insight. I'm not looking for a moral. But I am looking for the writer, at some point, to have realized that "life is sad" is a pretty piss-poor theme unless it is followed by, ". . . unless you do this."

Yossarian's action at the end of Catch-22 being the most important thing about that film (*doesn't happen in the book).

In art, doing the first half of the theme without the second half is called "phoning it in." Right now, the art film industry is hiding the fact that they are phoning it in by committing themselves to 'rendering.' Rendering means very little to me. I am a writer. All the rendering in the world won't cover up for piss-poor writing.

And please. The last bastion? Nonsense. People haven't stopped writing original story-lines. If Hollywood doesn't appeal to you, move to foreign films. But understand, those aren't 'art films' in the countries where they are made. They are just films.

Jeremiah Scott said...

Well said. And I concede your point about foreign films. They can usually be found only in art house theaters here, so I tend to pump them together, but that's not accurate.

Alexis Smolensk said...

All right. Non-art films.

Hollywood is, absolutely, shit. I would like to put a bullet into Hollywood's brain. But let's look at some NON-ART films that have been very good in the last five years. For examples, I will stick to plot-driven films:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Swedish), Red, Romantics Anonymous, Cabin in the Woods, Wreck-It Ralph, Gravity, Hanna, Sucker Punch, the Watchmen, Haywire and the Boat That Rocked.

What you have to realize, Jeremiah, is that liking a movie is subjective. Whether or not you like any of the movies above, the plots are ALL original, they are like no other movie I have ever seen. The thing I notice about people who comment upon films is they don't seem to know what a plot IS. I appreciate that you feel that you can see only so many Superhero films, but that's not because the films are bad or repetitive. It is because they don't fit your expectation.

I saw Captain America: the Winter Soldier on the weekend. I thought it very well plotted. I felt it make me like the character more than I had previously, because they had added attitudes and behaviours that made Steve more human. I felt they gave great time to all the actors in the film and that they ALL developed over the course of it. And I even liked the new guy.

And seriously, no one can look at that stage montage from the first Cap film and tell me THAT'S old hat. That sequence was brilliant.

There are good non-art films. They're being made all the time. It is only that you have to wade through so MUCH unbelievable shit, that it looks like there are no good films. There are.

Jeremiah Scott said...

You're right. It occurs to me that I'm prone to hyperbole because I get so bogged down with all of Hollywood's shit. And I'm jaded, too, because I used to lap that swill up.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Gawd, I used to as well. I actually used to think Star Wars was a good film.

One of the interesting things about the Internet is that it has allowed me to see many films that I adored in my youth. Many of these I haven't seen in 20 and 30 years, or more. Sometimes, I'm amazed I still like the film (recently found a copy of 1937's The Great Garrick, which I hadn't seen since I was about 15, and then only once in my whole life; wasn't bad).

Often, I wonder what was wrong with me.

Anonymous said...

Your thing with camera angles highlights what good gaming might be, and brings to mind the mock?umentary Snow on Da Bluff.

Bad gaming happens when the DM INSISTS on a camera angle that everyone else despises. It's hackneyed, it's kitsch, it's camp ... Whatever. It is poorly done Storytelling.

Bad gaming also happens when the table fails to agree on a camera angle and just fumblefucks the equipment til somebody drops it right on the lens. "retcon."

Good gaming? That happens with a consistent consensus on what should be the camera angle. My personal taste is for a straight on view, preferring dopamine to serotonin, not going for any "statement" by choice of filter or angle. But tables vary.

Clovis Cithog said...

what, no love for
"Jacobs Ladder?"

Ozzie Pippenger said...

This post is one of the truest things I've read in months. I think right now I have on player who is definitely interested, two who definitely aren't, one who used to be but isn't anymore, and one who I honestly just can't read.

One depressing thing I've realized is that over time, people almost always become less excited about the game. They feel like they've seen everything before, and as they get older, they get more responsibilities and worse imaginations.

I don't know if there's any way to reverse this trend. All I can do is try to improve as a DM at a faster rate than my players become disinterested in D&D. But I don't know how long I can keep that up.

Jhandar said...

I can sympathize with you. I found myself in a similar situation about a year ago with a long held gaming group that was putting forward ‘meh’ as their best effort and mean while I am trying to churn out better and better sessions to revitalize them. From this activity I came to two realizations, one much sooner than the others.
The first realization is that: I am not responsible for their investment into the campaign. A very harsh sounding sentence, but I stick by it. I work to provide an incredibly open ‘sandbox’ for my players to explore and play in. As such, the ball is in the player’s side of the court virtually all the time, and I strive to encourage their curiosity and sense of adventure. With the ball being in the player’s hands you have to come to terms with the fact that the story is player DRIVEN. They get what they get because they are behind the wheel. Again, harsh sounding, but an unwelcomed truth of open ended play.
My solution to this was to find a new group. I have picked up a second gaming circle, who demographically are quite similar to the first ‘meh’ group. But during character creation I drove home that they must flesh out their characters and not just be ‘Joe-swings-a-sword-alot’. The difference is night and day. The players have motivations to explore, interests dragging them hither and yon, and conflict between having to decide what is more important. All the while the world is naturally generating conflicts and consequences based on what they are paying attention to and what they are ignoring.
If you read Alexis’ online campaign, which I would recommend, the interactions between Ahmet and Andrej simply over the fact that Ahmet is not Catholic and the dialogues between Father Andrej’s efforts for conversion and Ahmet’s interpreting of campaign events and personal struggles attempting to inform him about his belief in Christianity or Islam have generated more words and interactions than any plot line that Alexis’ tossed out. And this is the root of the issue, you have players who have a concept of their character and are dealing with moral choices and social conflicts. I would contend that while they are on a campaign hiatus while Alexis writes that they could quite happily spend the entire time dialoguing with each other and derive a great deal of satisfaction doing so without the DM even being present.
It has nothing to do with having been there or done that. There are no new gimmicks that are drawing them in or extra creative plotlines or particularly ‘cool’ NPCs (Although on a side note, the campaign is fascinating to read simply to look at Alexis’ use of NPCs. He does not talk about this much as I imagine it is very second nature to him, but I think a lot of DMs go wrong on how they use their NPCs, but I think this goes back to the issue of whom is the driving force in the campaign, but either way, read the logs, they are great.).
So, long post summed: If your players are bored, their characters are funny suits that they wear when they play. The characters should have morals, goals, hopes and dreams. Then all you need to do is lean on those, challenge them, give them affronts to their sensibilities, and have them choose one over the other. If your players are up to the challenge I promise you that the proverbial lily will regild itself.
Which brings me to my second point I mentioned 500 words or so ago; some players do not want to do this kind of work. Be they stupid, lazy, bad players, simpletons, whatever. This has been a common topic of Alexis for late, and as mentioned in this post; they will quietly go down the river without putting in an effort. If you are wanting the best game you can possibly have, cull them from the herd. Harsh, but true, I promise.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I can't say I entirely agree with you, Jhandar. You said a great deal, so I will focus on just one point.

Saying that I am not responsible as a DM for the player's investment in the campaign is in league with saying that I as director, or I as playwrite, am not responsible for the audience's enjoyment of the performance or the play. Yes, it is true that the audience needs to enter the theatre with an open mind; they have to be receptive if they are going to have a pleasant evening. But I must hold up my end, also.

It is a jointly-held responsibility; both DM and Player serve roles in the game. Both must strive. I recognize that what you probably mean to say, Jhandar, is this: "I am doing my part; it is up to the players to do theirs." I believe that within the context of your comment, this is implied.

However, I am never quite sure that I am doing "my part" when I DM. In fact, I would argue that it is dangerously arrogant to presuppose that I have done all that I could to run the game. And to that I will add this.

I can't force a change in the player's behaviour. I can, however, force a change in MY behaviour; so if a game is not going well, I prefer to start with those things I can control.

This means to look within. I believe Ozzie is attempting to do this. It seems unlikely he is looking for words to the effect that he should freely suspend his responsibility. I know that I would not look for those words.

I would want to know what I can do to evolve, as Ozzie says, faster than my players. If I fail, and the players depart, then I fail. I don't see the answer as dumping the players and finding others. I am responsible to THESE players, to give them a good game.

I trust that you understand that commitment, Jhandar.