Friday, February 24, 2017

VeggieTales: A Short History

                Quite possibly one of the best Christian children’s video series ever produced, VeggieTales is a computer animated show starring vegetables.  The main characters are straight man Bob the Tomato and silly Larry the Cucumber.  Joining them are the supporting characters: Archibald Asparagus, Junior Asparagus, Dad and Mom Asparagus, Laura Carrot, Mr. Lunt, Jimmy and Jerry Gourd, and more.  These characters live on a kitchen countertop and tell stories, sometimes Biblical, sometimes original or a parody of a popular culture story with a Biblical message.  VeggieTales are silly, entertaining, with great clean humor that children and adult appreciate.  Here is a short history of Big Idea Productions’ most famous video series.
                In 1989, Phil Visher created the production company GRAFx, with the intention of using computer graphics in commercials.  However, he saw the potential of creating a VHS video with vegetables, without arms and legs, which would keep the animation simple and easier to produce.  In early 1993, he founded Big Idea Productions along with Mike Nawrocki and his wife Lisa.  Their first production was called “Where’s God When I’m S-Scared?”  It featured three segments, with a wraparound introduction and conclusion by Bob and Larry.  Many of the features of future videos were established this video.  The first segment was an original story where Junior, after watching a scary show, struggles to fall asleep until Bob and Larry drop in to help Junior.  The middle segment is the very first Silly Songs with Larry, one of the most popular aspects of the VeggieTales videos (in fact, the original idea was to do a different middle segment each time, but fans demanded Silly Songs with Larry after it was not included in the second video, so from the third video on it was a regular feature).   The last segment was the first retelling of a Biblical story, Daniel and the Lion’s Den.  The first three videos (the second and third being called “God Wants Me to Forgive Them!?!” and “Are You My Neighbor?” respectively).  With the fourth video, released in 1995, Bob and Larry introduce one main story, this time “Rack, Shack and Benny” (the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) with the Silly Songs with Larry severing as an Intermission.  Many subsequent videos follow this format, of one main story with a Silly Song intermission. Also, Big Idea started releasing their productions on DVDs when the format took over from VHS.
                In 2002, in addition to producing 13 direct-to-video releases, Big Idea released its first Feature Film, Jonah: A VeggieTales movie.  The movie featured an introductory segment with Junior, Laura, Bob and Dad and their friends heading to a Twippo, concert, but crash their car and are forced to seek shelter in a” seafoo(d)” restaurant.  There, they meet the popular characters The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything, who tell the story of Jonah, a Biblical prophet who failed to learn compassion and mercy.  The movie had a budget of $14 million and made $25.6 million at the box office.
                Unfortunately, in 2002 and 2003, Big Idea had financial troubles and was sold to Classic Media.  Phil Visher stepped down as the driving force behind Big Idea and Mike Nawrocki assumed creative control (though Visher still agreed to voice the characters).  If you want to know Phil Visher’s complete account of Big Idea's end as an independent company you can read it in an 11-part blog post here.  However, the good news was that Big Idea’s parent company wanted to make more VeggieTales videos.  In 2004, three VeggieTales videos were released in the same year, up from the one or two in previous years.
In 2008, the supporting characters the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything received their own movie.  In the movie, the do-nothing pirates want to put on a pirate stage show, when they travel back in time to the 17th century and have to be real pirates.  The movie was made for $15 million and grossed $13.2 million at the box office. 
                Big Idea continued to regularly release direct-to-DVD productions up through 2014. On November 26, 2014, Netflix produced 3 direct-to-video productions and premiered VeggieTales in the House, a new animated series starring the characters in a new animation and storytelling style.  As of 2017, 52 episodes have been released over four seasons.  The last regular direct-to-DVD production was released on March 5, 2015, and was called Noah’s Ark.  No Direct to DVD productions have been released in 2016 or have been announced for 2017.  A new Netflix series, called VeggieTales in the City, will premiere on February 24, 2017. 

                While VeggieTales continues in some format on Netflix, the original direct-to-video series has probably met its end.  In all, there were forty-seven original productions and two feature films (there were also many compilation DVDs).  Here’s to the original VeggieTales video series and their incredible characters and warm clean humor.  

Friday, February 17, 2017

In-depth Movie Analysis from Three YouTube Channels

  It’s easy to examine movies as a thing to be criticized, to take each one and try to find something wrong with it.  While there is a place for that, film criticism can also look at films as an art form.  To look at fantastic films and sometimes not-so-fantastic, and take a critical look at the techniques used, showing how the writing/ cinematography/acting/editing can work for the movie (or sometimes against it).  Here are three YouTube that has in-depth movie analysis.  
   The channel Lessons from the Screenplay is from Michael Tucker.  He examines screenplays from well-known movies, both celebrated critical hits and Hollywood blockbusters.  For example, in one of the two-part American Beauty videos, Tucker tells us that one of the strengths of American Beauty is the fact that all of the characters desire the same thing: seeking their true self, instead of each desiring different things, which is a great way “to show the theme of your movie to the audience”.  The next video is about The Dark Knight, and focused on creating the Ultimate Antagonist, who for example is “exceptionally good at attacking the Hero’s greatest weakness.”  The Joker specifically wants Batman to kill him because he knows Batman’s one moral code is that he doesn’t kill people.  Also, the Joker forces Bruce Wayne/Batman to make difficult choices to reveal who or what he cares about when pressured.  In these ways, the Joker is the Ultimate Antagonist for Batman.  Other videos look at how Wes Anderson’s story meets style, examining the anatomy of the obsessed artist by comparing Black Swan to Whiplash, and focusing on how Ex Machina controls information.  The Lessons from the Screenplay series does so well focusing on the completed movie as well as the script itself.  In this way, the series examines how best to use screenplays to tell effective stories.  
    Every Frame a Painting, made by Tony Zhou, primarily examines movie making from more camera techniques and movies as a visual medium.  An early video focuses on the Spielberg Oner, that is long one-shots in movies.  However, unlike long takes from other directors, which are extremely long and call attention to themselves (example: the entering the restaurant scene from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas).  However, in each of Spielberg’s films, his Oner instead is shorter but instead, delivers enough information in one shot that three or four shots could have done showing are efficiency as director.  Another video (taking inspiration from the documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself) is called Vancouver Never Plays Itself, and examines the exact ways filmmakers have used Vancouver to be any city the movie deems it to be and since he is a native of Vancouver, laments that there few films which celebrate the uniqueness of his own city.  Other videos include: how Robin Williams moves in movies, the evolution of the artistry of animator Chuck Jones, and an examination of chairs and their significance for movies and the characters in those movies, and even a video on the distinct camera style of Michael Bay (yes that Transformers director).  No matter what the subject, Zhou approaches each video with a love for the artistry and technique of movies.  
  Chez Lindsay, made by Lindsay Ellis, originally started out as the counterpart to the Nostalgia Critic and was called the Nostalgia Chick.  Based out of New York City, her original Nostalgia Chick reviews had many similarities in the format with the Nostalgia Critic reviews, though obviously with Ellis’ distinct style.  However, towards the end of her run with the Nostalgia Critic’s parent company Channel Awesome, she began to evolve and create different content and ultimately branch out on her own channel, Chez Lindsay.  The first is a fascinating series called Loose Canon, which examines all of the ways one character, thing or event is portrayed in media.  Subjects previously covered include Phantom of the Opera, Queen Elizabeth II, Marilyn Monroe, 9/11, Hilary Clinton, Jack the Ripper and Santa Claus.  Ellis has also released in-depth looks at three movies (Hercules, Joel Schumacher's Phantom of the Opera and Rent), movies which were well made but ultimately failed, and the reasons why they failed, including their history of production.  She also created a fantastic analysis of the Three Act Structure in movies (“And Why They Work”), a look into how Aliens have been portrayed in the movies (similar to her Loose Canon series) and a study of planting and payoff done right with Mad Max: Fury Road used as the example.  Chez Lindsay’s approaches to movie analysis are informative, fascinating and frequently hilarious.  
   Each of these YouTube channels makes their content based primarily on the love of the art form of movies, and each of them is creating content on their own.  They each have Patreon, a site where you can support them monetarily as an artist if you enjoy their content.  Check out each of these wonderful YouTube channels with excellent In-Depth looks at movies as an art form. 

Lessons From a Screenplay: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCErSSa3CaP_GJxmFpdjG9Jw
Every Frame a Painting: https://www.youtube.com/user/everyframeapainting

Friday, February 10, 2017

Unfinished Movie Series Based on Adaptations of Book Series, Part 4

      Welcome to the fourth and final installment of unfinished movie series based on book series.  In this installment, three recent movies were made which were adapted from popular Young Adult series.  Unfortunately, all three series only had one movie to speak of because of the lackluster or poor response to that first movie.  Here are the final three unfinished movie series based on book series.
The rights to City of Ember, the first of the Book of Ember series, were bought in October 2004 by the Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, partners at a production company called Playtone.  Production lasted from summer to fall of 2007.  The movie was directed by Gil Kenan and starred Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, and Bill Murray.  City of Ember was released on October 10, 2008, and received a 53% score on Rotten Tomatoes.  The movie was made with a production budget of $55 million and made only $17 million worldwide ($7 million US).  While the sequel, The People of Sparks, was optioned at the time of release, the performance of the first film makes the sequel extremely unlikely.
  The production of I am Number Four, the first of the Lorien Legacies series, began promisingly.  DreamWorks bid over J.J. Abrams to purchase the rights in June 2009, with Michael Bay (known for movies that make money, regardless of critical response) set to produce and possibly direct. However, Bay decided to direct Transformers: Dark of the Moon, so D. J. Caruso was brought on to direct, with Alex Pettyfer cast as Number Four.  Production started on May 17, 2010, and lasted throughout the summer.  I am Number Four premiered on February 18, 2011, with a budget of $60 million.  The movie received a low 33% score on Rotten Tomatoes.  I am Number Four went on to make $149.9 million at the worldwide box office ($55 million US).  While there were hopes for the movie series to become a franchise, eventually making a movie adaptation of all six books, nevertheless the sequel was shelved following the box office performance of I am Number Four.
Cassandra Clare, the author of the Mortal Instruments series, had trouble initially because film companies wanted her to change the protagonist from female to a male lead, but she refused.  Finally, in a coproduction between German company Constantin Film Produktion GmbH and Canadian company Don Carmody productions and Unique Pictures, production started in 2012 with Harald Zwart directing.  The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones was released on August 21, 2013, and had a budget of $60 million.  Rotten Tomatoes gave a very low 12% score.  The movie grossed $90.6 million worldwide ($31 million US).  Initially, in May 2013, it was announced the sequel to City of Bones, City of Ashes, would begin production in September 2013.  After City of Bones was released, however, the movie was initially shelved, and then in 2014, there were rumors of the sequel being announced.  Finally, the German company Constantin announced on October 12, 2014, that Mortal Instruments would return as TV series.  Shadowhunters (also called Shadowhunters: the Mortal Instruments) premiered on January 12, 2016, on the Freeform cable network.  After a 13 episode first season, the show was renewed for a 20 episode second season, which premiered on January 2, 2017.  While the continuation the novels into a TV show will hopefully satisfy fans, this means that the movie series will remain unfinished.  
  All three movie series were started with high hopes for sequels, hoping to adapt all of the stories in the book series.  However, disappointing critical and box office reception only allowed the first of each to be adapted, with the exception of the Mortal Instruments series, which lives on in a TV series instead of a series of movies.   In the end, fans of each of these unfinished film series are left to wonder what might have been.  

Friday, February 3, 2017

Unfinished Movie Series based on Adaptations of Book Series, Part 3

Here is the third installment in the series about unfinished movie adaptations of book series.  In this post, all three were produced with high hopes for a series but failed spectacularly.  All three had a good fan base, but nevertheless, the movie was not critically well received or made good money at the box office.  Let’s check out these movies which failed to start a franchise based on the book series.
In 1981, Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis had the rights to Dune, written by Frank Herbert and the sequels that were written at the time.  David Lynch was approached to direct and he agreed to write screenplay too, despite having never read the Dune novels.  The movie Dune was made for $40 million and was required to be close to two hours long. (it was ultimately 2 hours and 16 minutes).  Dune was released on December 14, 1984, and critical reception was mixed to negative.  Of the reviews that are currently online about Dune, Rotten Tomatoes holds a 57% score.  Dune opened second behind Beverly Hills Cop and ultimately only made $30.9 million in the US, and is considered a box office disappointment.  Plans for the Dune sequels were shelved.  However, there are some fans of the movie which have regulated the movie to cult status, but Dune is still mostly remembered as one of the biggest adaptation failures of all time.  
In 2001, New Line Cinema bought the rights to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and set to make a movie based on the first book, Northern Lights (released as The Golden Compass in the U.S.), with the title The Golden Compass.  After several false starts, Chris Weitz was announced as director: he was asked earlier but dropped out due to the challenges of making such a big scale film; he agreed again after the second director stepped down.  In the end, The Golden Compass was an extremely expensive film, costing $180 million.  The Golden Compass was released on December 5, 2007, in the UK and received a disappointing 43% score on Rotten Tomatoes.  The movie ultimately made $372 million at the worldwide box office ($70 million US), however, New Line had sold the international rights in order fund the movie, which meant New Line did not see much of the $302 million made outside of the US.  Ultimately, the sequels were shelved and never made.
In February 2004, an adaptation of Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, (however, it should be noted, only Eragon was available when the production started) was announced, with Stefan Fangmeier directing.  Unlike the previous two examples, the pre-production history was rather uncomplicated.  Eragon was made with a $100 million budget and filmed partly in Hungary and Slovakia.  However, when the movie was released on December 16, 2006 (the first sequel, Eldest, was also released that year), it received scathing reviews, getting only 16% score on Rotten Tomatoes.  Eragon ultimately made $249 million worldwide ($75 million US).  No news about the sequels based on subsequent books has ever been released, but if the movie had been a critical and box office success, it would be far more likely that the sequels would be made.
All three of these movies were made with high hopes, but lackluster reception to each of these adaptations sealed the fate of these franchises.  The first two also suffered from a troubled pre-production in which the studio struggled to find a suitable director.  Unfortunately, the sequels to Dune, The Golden Compass and Eragon were never made, leaving the movie series unfinished.