Favorite moments: ‘Mad Max Power Wheels’

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The video:

Why it’s great:

Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re writing Hollywood’s next big film, the blockbuster that will finally earn you cinematic immortality and a big boost of friends on your Facebook page. But there’s problem: You’re writing a comedy, and you’re doing a big action scene of, say, soldiers attacking a fortress. The scene’s well-written, but it’s not funny, and nothing you do makes it work. What do you do?

Why not replace the soldiers with kids?

‘Mad Max Power Wheels’ is a near-perfect example of one of my favorite comedy tropes: Having children re-enact adult movies with a comedic bent. We expect to see little kids pretending to be police officers, paramedics, or firefighters when driving around in Power Wheels, not celebrating the release a of an R-rated post-apocalyptic movie by pretending to be hardened road warriors slaughtering each other for gazzoline gasoline. Yet, seeing that contrast between bloody death and ruin and innocent kids having lots of fun makes for comedy gold, and it only gets funnier the more mature, bloody, or gruesome said stories are. Captain Phillips, anyone?

What we can learn from ‘Water Fight’

Raise your hand if you’ve seen a car commercial that features the following:

*Some rich dude/gal drives their super-expensive luxury car that no ordinary person can afford out of their seventy gazillion dollar home.

*They drive through the empty streets of Los Angeles at night (which are conveniently empty of trash, homeless people, and homeless people having arguments with invisible aliens).

*They’re incredibly happy at their car that looks like every other car in every other car commercial since the 90’s that will one day either be crushed into scrap metal or become a pile of weed-covered rust in the backyard because its owner is a crippled, 90 year old man who is convinced that he will one day restore it, sell it, and become rich.

Sound familiar? I’d estimate that’s about 80% of all car commercials in the United States since the 90’s (the rest are either cars driving around Southern California hills while a creepy kid whispers, ‘zoom zoom’, and cowboys throwing things into pickup trucks while a guy yells, ‘Like a rock!’). With almost every car commercial being almost identical, it takes a lot to stand out. I can only think of three that do so; this one:

and this fake one (warning: This video contains language that is VERY not safe for work):

But the one that stands out for me is this one:

It may be short, but it has one great trick for writers to learn:

When doing a parody fight, have your characters treat it seriously:

I still remember watching this commercial for the first time and laughing at the absurdity of these Matrix-style tough guys going into battle with colorful water pistols, water guns, and water balloons (come to think of it, a remastered version of the Matrix trilogy where everyone wields water guns would be hilarious). Watching the commercial again, what strikes me the most is that the characters treat their situation with the utmost seriousness. They see nothing funny at all about trying to kill each other with H20.

In our own comedic stories, it can be tempting to have characters comment on the absurdity of the situations they’re in; a ‘wink at the audience’ moment, if you will. But I’ve come to realize that those moments should be avoided. When watching a scene unfold, our brains have a good idea of what to expect, but when an unexpected, comedic element is thrown it, it throws us off balance (in a good way), and we enjoy the novelty of seeing something we’ve seen done a hundred times be done in an absurd way.

Think of classic Hollywood parodies: ‘Airplane!’ ‘Monty Python and The Holy Grail’ ‘The Naked Gun’ trilogy. In all of them, their characters don’t see anything funny about the situations they’re going through. Had they laughed, pointed out the absurdity, or otherwise become aware of the parody elements, the films would have lost much of their humor. Thus, when writing our own comedy, perhaps the simplest rule to remember is to keep it straight… and that you probably shouldn’t bring a water pistol to a gun fight.

 

Favorite Moments: ‘My Slam Will Jam On’

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The video

Why It’s Great

The 90’s were a magical time for cinema. From that era, we got such classics as ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day,’ ‘Jurassic Park,’ ‘The Matrix,’ ‘Toy Story,’ and the juggernaut that was ‘Titanic’… and then we got ‘Space Jam’, which features Michael Jordon teaming up with the Loony Tunes to save them from being kidnapped by aliens by playing basketball.

Uhh… Yeah.

However, from this unlikely tale came a title song that has gone on to become a low-key, but steady internet legend, a song that can be mixed with anything. I myself only recently became aware of its existence, through one of the most unexpected mashups I’ve ever heard. It shouldn’t work; there’s no logical way a song about outer space basketball and doomed teenage romance on a sinking ship should work… but, incredibly, it does. I have no idea why, but… gosh dangit, this is one catchy song, and it is my sacred duty to expose it to as many people as possible so they, too, can weep at its glory.

What we can learn from ‘Spider-Man’ (2000 video game)

Everyone who ever grew up playing video games has a favorite, a treasure that they enjoy coming back to year after year, even when the game is outdated and forgotten by the gaming public at large. Having gone from playing The Oregon Trail’ on black and green apple computers in grade school, to experiencing the power of the PS3, there are many games I count as personal favorites, but when it comes to superhero games, there’s only one choice for me: ‘Spider-Man’ for the Playstation 1. In the 19 years since it came out, I continue to pop it into whatever Sony console I have at the time (hooray for backwards compatibility!) and give it a go every now and then, and every time I’m delighted that it still holds up. Yes, the graphics are outdated, the camera and controls a little wonky, but it’s a fun, colorful, light-hearted game that offers so much for Spidey fans, including an often hilarious ‘What if?’ mode that tweaks little things in the game, including giving having one of the bosses be voiced by a little kid.

If I had to take only one superhero game with me to a deserted island for the rest of my life, ‘Spider-Man’ would be the one packed inside my bags. But enough nostalgia-gushing. Let’s see what writers can learn from Spidey’s successful leap into the third dimension.

If the situation is right, consider bringing all your A-list characters together in one story

Doc Ock. Venom. Carnage, Mysterio. Scorpion. The Rhino. Captain America. The Punisher. Daredevil, Black Cat. ‘Spider-Man’ didn’t hold anything back when it came to filling out the roster of Spidey’s foes and friends, giving each one at least a satisfying cameo, or a pivotal role in the game. The sheer weight of all these characters – with their backstories, history, and personal grudges against Spider-Man – shows that that Activision and Neversoft held nothing back when it came to bringing in familiar faces for fans and newcomers alike.

In our own stories, it’s tempting to hold back when starting out with multi-part epics, and not put all our most prominent, heavy-hitting villains and allies in the first story, either from a desire not to have the plot be overstuffed, or not wanting to use up all our best characters at once. Both are valid concerns, but ‘Spider-Man’ proves that you can have multiple A-list characters: Only a few (Doctor Octopus, Venom, and Carnage) have prominent roles, but everyone else still has their moment to shine, even if only just a cameo – the important part being that those one-off appearances does impact the plot, and Spidey’s journey, and aren’t just there for fan-service.

Have both the villains and the good guys come after your hero

Like all good stories, ‘Spider-Man’ raises the stakes for our hero by having not only all the bad guys of New York City going after him, but the good guys as well: The police, thinking that Spidey’s the one behind the heist that starts the game, unleash everything they have to catch him (including the world’s most relentless helicopter). Even heroes like The Punisher and Daredevil aren’t sure if Spidey is innocent or not. Thus, not only does Spider-Man have to stop Doc Ock’s diabolical plan to rule the world, but also have to clear his name at the same time.

In our own stories, it’s typical for the hero to have to take on more powerful villains, but having him or her have to take on the good guys adds an extra layer of danger and moral complication. As the hero, our protagonist can’t just kill the forces of good, as this would make his or her situation even worse, forcing them to be creative when it comes to incapacitating good guys without killing or harming them. Our audiences enjoy seeing that creativity at work.

For extra points, this trope can also apply to villain protagonists. If your protagonist isn’t trying to redeem themselves, they can go to war with both good and bad guys; if they’re trying to redeem themselves, they have to struggle against their corrupt nature to try and do what’s right, ensuring even more drama.

Consider giving your villain a code of honor

Of all of Spidey’s villains to appear in-game, it’s Venom – in my opinion – who fares the best. Unlike Doc Ock, Carnage, Rhino, or Mysterio, who just want to get Spider-Man out of the way so he won’t interfere with their plan, Venom isn’t out to conquer the world, but to bring Spidey to justice for (supposedly) stealing Doc Ock’s machine. Yet, after Venom learns that Spidey is innocent, he immediately joins forces with him to find out who really caused the heist.

In our own stories, villains with a sense of honor – and even a willingness to team up with protagonists if the need arises – are far more compelling and interesting than those who are just cruel, evil, and have no redeeming traits. While he’s clearly not a nice guy, Venom’s contrasts make him fascinating to follow, especially his sense of humor: I never fail to chuckle at seeing him surfing the internet and asking for Captain America’s autograph.

Consider a sudden genre change at the climax of your story

Compared to many superhero games of the past nineteen years, ‘Spider-Man’ is a lighthearted tale. Yes, it has the occasional serious moment (Black Cat being impaled by Rhino’s horn certainly takes the cake), but by and large it’s a kid-friendly game that anyone can enjoy.

That is, until the final level.

Back when I first played ‘Spider-Man’, I was wondering who the inevitable final boss would be. Doc Ock was an obvious choice. If not him, then Carnage. To my surprise, both were defeated, but the game wasn’t over. Then I saw who the real final boss was: Monster-Ock, a combination of Doctor Octopus and the bloodthirsty personality of the Carnage symboite, who chases after you in darkened tunnels while howling at the top of its lungs.

Like any kid of the late 90’s, I did what any other kid in that situation would do: Have crippling nightmares for life.

Okay, not really. But the final level of ‘Spider-Man’ is such a radical departure from the rest of the game. There’s no jokes from Spidey, no quippy one-liners, and no humor. It’s a segment out of a horror game where you have to outrun an unbeatable foe. There’s no one to help you, no one coming to save you as you fight to outrun this screaming, multi-toothed, skinless-looking monster that will cave your face in if it catches you, and all the while trying to escape an underwater base before it explodes.

Awesome, right? And what makes it so memorable is because it’s so unexpected. First-time players expect an epic boss fight against one of Spidey’s legendary villains, with him finally winning the day and swinging off into the sunset with a witty joke. Instead, he has to run for his life, so scared that he doesn’t even try to be humorous. In our own stories, such shifts in tone shows the audience that things have gotten serious; the stakes are at their highest, the danger has never been more immense, and failure will bring catastrophic consequences. Doing such a shift can be difficult, and if done wrong, it can ruin the immersion. But when pulled off correctly, it can create moments our audience will remember for years to come. To this day, the ‘fight’ against Monster-Ock remains one of my favorite boss encounters in any video game, and is a great ending to a great game.

The Takeaway:

If the conditions are right, putting in all your A-list characters in one story is a surefire way to please fans who want to see their favorite characters team up, and having your hero having to not only face off against their most powerful villains, but against other good guys, will make the stakes higher than ever, especially if one of those villains has a code of honor that they follow religiously. And to cap off such a story, consider making a genre shift at the very end to catch your audience off guard and surprise them with something they didn’t expect, like horror.

Favorite Moments: ‘Captain… Help…’

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Movie

‘Star Trek: First Contact’ (1996)

The Scene

(skip to 1:35 for the moment in question)

Why It’s Great

As a child of the 90’s, I was privileged to see a lot of great TV shows growing up: ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘M*A*S*H’ reruns, ‘Dinosaurs!’ and almost every Nickelodeon cartoon and game show constantly played on the family television, but it’s ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ that’s stayed with me well into adulthood. Picard, Riker, Data, Worf, and all the Enterprise crewmembers others were as much a part of my childhood as Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and Indiana Jones. I watched as the Enterprise and her crew as they explored the cosmos, negotiated peace with hostiles species, got into firstfights and phaser shootouts… and also turned into children.

Throughout it all, though, Picard was the character who left the greatest impression with me. He was the champion of reason and diplomacy, yet not afraid to get into a fight if he needed to. He was firm, but fair, and to my young eyes he was the leader who always did what was right.

Then came 1996’s ‘First Contact,’ and in a film filled with action, horror, shootouts, and scary Borg monsters, the thing that stuck with me the most was the shock of seeing Picard shot an infected Enterprise crewmember begging for help. As a young kid, that blew my mind: Picard was the good guy! He wouldn’t kill his own crew! And yet, he had just killed one!

To a pre-teen like me, this was the moment where I realized that the right thing to do isn’t always the nicest. In the cartoons and kids shows I watched, the heroes always saved innocent people from the bad guys. To see one of those heroes kill an innocent person – even if it was an act of mercy – made me realize that sometimes the good guys must do things that are morally questionable, even if there’s no malicious intent. It was a big step forward in realizing that things aren’t always black and white, and a big step in realizing that writing stories where things aren’t clear cut are a great tool for creating moral delimas that stay with audiences long after the story is over.

What we can learn from ‘The Northern Incident’

 

Is there such a thing as a perfect horror story? A few months ago, I took a look at one of the best written examples, and today I want a look at one of the best animated examples: A 2011 animation titled, ‘The Northern Incident’ that freaked me out the first time I saw it, and has remained with me ever since as one of the scariest horror shorts I’ve ever seen… up until the last minute. But before we get to that minute, let’s take a look at what this short does so well.

In a horror story, the more remote and more isolated your setting, the better

In the grand tradition of horror stories being set in remote, hard-to-reach locations, ‘The Northern Incident’ takes place at a cabin in the remote, snow-covered forest far from civilization. In a nice twist, though, the cabin’s just close enough that the man has access to a television and a phone so he can call for help… but when the phone line is cut, he might as well be on a different planet. He has a way back to civilization, but no way to get there without freezing to death. There’s nothing worse, after all, than being in sight of safety, but being unable to get to it.

Consider making your audience hear your monster more than they see it

It might be a cliche, but keeping the monster/threat in a horror story out of sight is one of the best things writers can do. Without knowing what the threat looks like, audiences are forced to use their imagination to create the threat, coming up with horrors more terrifying than anything any writer or concept artist could create. Before they’re fully revealed, all we know about the monsters in ‘The Northern Incident’ is that they’re roughly human-sized, intelligent, and can move with astonishing speed.

While ‘The Northern Incident’ follows this trope perfectly, it masterfully uses another aspect to enhance it: Using sound to show where the creatures are. We hear them knocking at the cabin’s door, walls, ceiling, and even driving a car. It’s one thing to see a terrifying monster, but it’s even more terrifying to know that it’s close by, but only being able to hear it.

Consider making your monster smart and sadistic

While the unseen and the unknown is terrifying, it becomes even more frightening when your audience realizes that the monster isn’t some mindless beast, but something that’s smart. The creatures in ‘The Northern Incident’ are smart enough to know how to hotwire and drive a car, as well as knowing how to disable a phone, but there’s a more subtle horror that’s not easily noticeable at first: The creatures toy with the man. They want to make him afraid, and are holding back on killing him (or whatever they plan to do) to try and drive him mad. They’re sadists, and there are few things as frightening as having your characters deal with something that’s human, smart, and loves inflicting misery on others.

Be very careful revealing that your monster is a joke character

Years ago, my father made an observation that’s stuck with me ever since: ‘The closer you get to perfection, the more obvious a flaw becomes.’ ‘The Northern Incident,’ regrettably, becomes a perfect example of this saying. The first 90% of the story is a masterpiece of pacing, animation, sound design, and horror. Then, in the final minute, we finally see what has been stalking the man and his dog… Furries.

The first time I saw ‘The Northern Incident’, I was shocked at the ending, and not in a good way. All the horror, the tension, and the scares were forgotten as I realized that all of it had been the setup for a joke, retroactively ruining everything that had come before.

For years, I’ve thought about why I find the ending to ‘The Northern Incident’ to be such a disappointment; other films effectively blend horror and comedy, so why does this one fail? I think it’s because the tone isn’t consistent with what comes before. By the end of the short, we – the audience – have been conditioned to expect a serious horror story, and the revelation that the man was attacked by furries retroactively makes us realize that everything that came before was a lie to throw us off guard. Had there been more comedic elements earlier, or hints about the creature’s true identity, the ending would have been easier to accept. As it is, it’s proof that while out-of-nowhere endings are memorable, they should at least fit with the tone of what came before.

The Takeaway

When doing a horror story, set it in a location far away from help (or have it so that characters can see help, but can’t get to it) and consider keeping the intelligent and sadistic monster hidden, with the audience hearing it instead of seeing it. When it comes time to do the ending, it’s okay to try something different, but keep the tone of it consistent with what came before.

Favorite Moments: The saga of Dervorin, the… ringbearer?

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The game

‘War in Middle Earth’

The video

(Skip to 27:35 to reach the relevant part of the video)

Why it’s great

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: In the land of Middle-Earth, the Dark Lord Sauron seeks to reclaim his Ring, which will give him the power to enslave the world. After the Ring is found by Frodo and his friends, they head for Rivendell, only for Frodo, Sam, and Merry to be cut down by Ringwraiths, leaving Pippin to be the Ringbearer.

Wait, what?

Afterwords, Pippin eventually makes his way to the city of Minas Tirith, where he personally commands the defense of the city, but during one of the seemingly endless assaults, Pippin falls in battle, leaving only heroic Dervorin to take up the ring, at which point he bravely sets out to reach Mt. Doom with 881 of Gondor’s finest infantry. But the quest runs into disaster when all of Dervorin’s troops are mowed down by 500 trolls; now alone, Dervorin continues on, sneaking through the mountains of Mordor before finally reaching Mt. Doom and chucking the Ring in, defeating Sauron and saving Middle-Earth!

Okay, so that’s not how The Lord of the Rings played out. But thanks to the computer game, ‘War in Middle Earth’, we have this curiously compelling tale of what might had happened in the tale to save Arda. Aside from the obvious deviation of having all the hobbits die – save Pippin – we get a story where it isn’t some legendary or heroic figure who takes the Ring to Mt. Doom, but some random guy most Tolkien readers have never heard of. I don’t blame any of them either; Dervorin appears only briefly in ‘The Return of the King,’ where he leads 300 men to the defense of Minas Tirith… and that’s all he contributes to the story. We don’t even know if he dies or not, which makes him an odd choice to entrust the fate of all Middle Earth to.

So why do I like this video so much? There’s the novelty factor of seeing a beloved tale being changed so drastically that it’s almost entirely new, of seeing favorite characters take on new roles and getting into interesting situations (like Gimli somehow evading 492 trolls by himself in the wilderness), but what captivates me the most is Dervorin himself. In a film, he would be an unnamed extra, someone in the background who doesn’t draw attention to himself. In battle, he would be one of the countless mooks who’s only purpose is to provide cannon fodder for the enemies, and to die to emphasize how dangerous the battle is. In every aspect, Dervorin is a nobody, an unimportant character who doesn’t have the luxury of plot armor to keep him alive.

Now, imagine what it must be like to be one of this unnamed, unimportant background characters, and suddenly be entrusted with the fate of the world.

When he gets the ring, Dervorin goes from being a nobody to being the most important person alive in Middle Earth. If he fails, Middle Earth is doomed. He’s the ultimate underdog, and we suddenly become invested in his survival, eager to see if he triumphs. And aside from the aforementioned skirmish with all those trolls, Dervorin somehow manages to pull it off, making his way to Mt. Doom all by himself, and managing to throw the ring in, all while apparently being immune to its corruption. That makes him awesome, and a fantastic example of an underdog rising to the occasion and saving the day.