Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review

by William O'Connor


I hardly ever review movies because although I have a lot of opinions and consider myself an ardent cinephile, I am not a film critic.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an exception for several reasons. One.  The mythology is so ingrained in my imagination that I feel extremely invested in the story.  Two.  I work in the Sci-Fi industry and have worked extensively on Star Wars projects for Lucas Films and its license holders in the past.   There are three ways to review this movie.  First as a movie, secondly as a Star Wars movie, and thirdly as act one in a three act play.

First as a movie.  There are always three criteria I use to measure a film. Writing, Acting and Cinematography.  Objectively, the writing of the screenplay (by JJ. Abrams and Kasdan) was darker and grittier for Force Awakens.  Immediately Mr. Abrams establishes the tone that this movie is a human drama, with the death of a stormtrooper that bleeds and dies.  This is not a video game of nameless, lifeless CGI droids being cut down, but real people with real emotions. The dialogue and action was very dense and the scenes and characters raced along at a frenetic pace, which may require me to watch it a second time just to catch things I missed. This aesthetic is quite common among contemporary super hero movies and particularly Mr. Abrams' films, which I find a little disorienting, but forces your attention.  There were a few scenes, such as the monster hallway chase scene aboard Han Solo's Freighter, that had hallmarks of Cabin in the Woods and Aliens, that just seemed silly and unnecessary. Abrams has the Post-Modern habit of inserting pop and historical cultural references into his films much like Quinten Tarrentino, both as homage and as a self deprecating awareness.  "I know, that you know that I know that I'm borrowing this idea." he seems to be saying.  Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Sirkis) was obviously inspired by The Wizard of Oz,  the Temple of Maz Katana looked like the bath house from Miyazaki's Spirited Away,  the Starkiller base carved out of a planet's interior had the reminder of many a Bond Villain lair, the shot of the tie fighters coming out of the sun was a direct homage to Apocalypse Now,  Han Solo being run through by his own son was a tribute to King Arthur and Rey being stranded on a craggy island with her father* is a lift from Shakespeare's The Tempest. (even my 9 year old daughter caught that one). There's more, but I'd have to watch it again to catch them all.  It was obvious that Abrams' key as writer and director was to make Force Awakens seem as familiar as possible.

Although the plot arc heavily mirrored the original 1977 New Hope, the script pays homage to Episode IV while giving the story a fresh face, staying within the strict Campbellian Monomyth guidelines of Hero's Calling,  Spirit Guide, Finding the Magic Sword and Departure on the Quest.  The added sense of humor that was thrown in was a much welcome change from the earnest drudgery of the prequels.

Secondly, the acting.  The standout performance was by Daisy Ridley as Rey.  Beautiful without being too pretty, youthful without being girlish, strong without loosing her femininity, intense and funny, she, without a doubt, was the keystone to this film and held it up admirably on her young shoulders. The other performances were fine.  John Boyega as Finn was funny as the born again storm trooper turned resistance fighter (inspired by Robot Chicken's Gary the Stormtrooper?), as well as Oscar Isaac as Po Dameron the brash and cocky fighter pilot.  Adam Driver playing the emotionally tortured Kylo Ren was excellent, adding a deep sense of gravitas to the role.  Performances by Harrison Ford and Carrie Fischer were fairly lifeless and forgettable.  Fisher in particular, whose extreme plastic surgery seemed to make it impossible to perform facial expressions or move her lips was more robotic than the droids.

Thirdly, the Cinematography.  By this I mean all the art production including editing, costumes, makeup, special effects and music as well as camera work.  This film looked a great deal different than previous Star Wars films.  The first difference I noticed was, no screen wipes, which for me is a hallmark of the Star Wars aesthetic, but thankfully no lens flares either.  The set designs were more natural than earlier productions as well.  Where in all the other films the characters go to exotic locations  in Force Awakens the environments were fairly recognizable.  A desert in Tunisia with sweeping pans of Lawrence of Arabia, A forest in Montana, A glacier in Iceland, and even a World Heritage ruins in Ireland.  All the locations were recognizable as places on Earth, not a Galaxy Far, Far Away, unlike Pandora of Avatar for example.  This again harkens back to Abrams' apparent desire to ground the movie in the familiar.  This added a much needed shot of realism compared to the CGI video game environments of the prequels, but didn't make the galaxy seem particularly diverse or alien.  Costumes and makeup were excellent, as well as the design of ships and hardware.  Everything was in keeping with the Star Wars classic aesthetic so that the viewer could easily follow good guys and bad guys, again the formula of the familiar.  The only artistic misstep was in the places where CGI was used too heavily.  Supreme Leader Snoke looked like a cross between Gollum and Voldemort, Maz Katana looked like a smurf  and the CGI roly-poly D&D Beholders on the space freighter were glaring CGI inserts that didn't seem necessary and broke the realism of the rest of the film.  The spiraling camera angles of the dogfights were hugely enjoyable having everyone in the audience sway and squeal as if on a roller coaster. Finally, the impressive score by Williams was much enjoyed and added to the familiar and beloved flavor of Star Wars.

Overall Score: B
Overall ranking as a Star Wars Movie: 4th, (1:Empire; 2:New Hope 3:Jedi)

Predictions for Acts Two and Three

As with all Campbellian myths, this story needs to have a predictable arc in the future.  Student trains with the master, learns new skills and wisdom, descends into the dark other-world, does battle with the dragon using the magic sword, sacrifice of flesh, death and resurrection and or redemption followed by the return of the hero.   How those details play themselves out will be the interesting part.  That doesn't bother me.  That's how hero stories progress.  Just as my knowing that Macbeth and Hamlet will die in the end doesn't stop my enjoyment of watching the tragedies over and over.  This is just Act one of a Three Act play.



Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Joan of Arc: Part 2 Final Drawing

William O'Connor

"Joan of Arc" Graphite and Gesso on Wood Panel 24"x48"

My Joan of Arc painting is progressing quickly, but when the Muses strike you have to work!

I began by griding off my gessoed panel in order to enlarge the sketch to the board, but immediately realized that this was not a technique that was going to work.  Using the grid technique is ideal when blowing up photographs to eliminate distortion in the proportions, but for this drawing the proportions had already been composed, and the grid would take too long.

Instead, I used a technique that I have been employing for years.  I blew up the sketch in the computer to the size I needed and printed out the image on a series of 11"x17" sheets.  Tiling them together I used a 6B graphite block to blacken the backside.  Positioning the carbon copy over the panel I used a red ballpoint pen to trace the sketch onto the surface of the panel.  I use red so that I can keep track of the transfer work.

Once the sketch has been roughly transferred I begin drawing the details onto the panel.  At this point I adopted a medium that I had never used before.  Super Heavy Gesso.  This material has the consistency of thick oil paint, but dries in a matter of minutes with a smooth chalk-like surface that is ideal for drawing on.  Instead of erasing my corrections I spackled the heavy gesso like joint compound with a palette knife adding dimension to the surface while rendering detail with the pencils.  Spot sanding the gesso smooth is also very quick and simple.  I had never used this technique before, but the physicality of sculpting the painting was very enjoyable, allowing me to make large changes quickly.

To the detriment of my bad back I spent many hours rendering details and repositioning elements.  Researching Latin phrases for the banner and finding medieval ornaments that complimented the costuming.  The biggest changes I made was that I positioned the figure of Joan more towards the center, in order to replicate the symmetry of Gothic equestrian paintings, entering the banner logo so to create a halo element behind Joan's head, and repositioning the dove to add movement into the composition.

At this point I have done all the work necessary to begin painting.  After a three day drawing marathon my back is giving out and I need to take a break! Much of this detailing will be obscured by subsequent layers of paint, but will act as a guide as I move forward.

Keep watching to see how it progresses.



Below I have added some of the reference that I am using as inspiration for this painting.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Joan of Arc: Part 1

By William O'Connor

Once again I have begun a large scale personal painting project, and once again I thought that I would share my process with the public.  The advantage of a personal piece is that I am free to share the process in "real time" without the constraints of an NDA.

Recently I wrote a blog about Joan of Arc at Muddy Colors.  The research that I did included a great deal of work to understand this historical, religious figure and her context to art and history.  This extensive study made me want to try to do an image of St. Joan myself.

"Joan ofArc" 10"x20" graphite on paper

"Joan of Arc" 10"x20" graphite and digital

I did a variety of sketch comps until I came up with one that I was happy with.  This sketch included the elements that I was trying to explore.  A Gothic sense of grandeur including all the heraldry and pomp of the 100 years war, as well as the austerity of an altarpiece from the 15th century (ala: Van Eyck).

I developed a color comp using the computer over the sketch and decided that this was a piece that could be a successful painting.  I wanted the piece to have the size to accommodate all the intricate details I envisioned, and the gravitas to do homage to the subject.

I settled on a 24"x 48" format using birch panel.  This was both a creative and practical decision.  24"x48" is a little more than double the size of the sketch, and conveniently is the size of panel that comes pre-cut from the local home supply store.  My experience with wood panel in the past has been that any cutting with a circular or table saw produces a shivered edge, so this eliminated that problem.  I have never used wood panel before (preferring hardboard) but I thought I would use this support for its light, rigid and economical benefits.  The hard surface should prevent any chips and corner damage, and many of my colleagues have recommended it.  I gave the panel three coats of gesso, sanded smooth, the last lightly tinted with Yellow Ochre to eliminate the glaring white.

This painting will be approached very differently than my last online painting "The Gandalf Triptych".  With this image I have already settled on a composition, color design and general detailing, which in the last painting was not decided until the final phase of the work.

Joan of Arc drawing with gessoed panel

With an overlay of acetate gridded-off with two inch squares over the drawing I'm preparing to transfer the drawing to the sized panel.  This sketching stage will be very labor-intensive because of the amount of detail that I've designed, but I hope will save me work in the long run.  At over 1000 square inches this will be the largest painting I've embarked on in over 15 years.  I have no deadline, so I have no estimate of when it will be completed.  Now comes the hard part. Wish me luck!

PS.  I'm still toying with the title: "Joan of Arc"; "St. Joan of Arc"; "Joan d'Arc"; "Jeanne d'Arc"; and "The Maid of Heaven".  Please leave any questions or suggestions in the comments section.

Keep watching and follow to see the next stage when its complete.