On Fantasy in Realism and Realism in Fantasy

Yesterday I read an article cataloging 7 tips on film-making from director Michel Gondry. In a passage where he name checks my favorite director, David Lynch, this bit caught my eye:

“If you’re already in science fiction... it’s already a heightened world so the dream in the film doesn’t take you away.”

I agree completely. Not only does this principle account for the visceral effectiveness of films like Gondry's and Lynch's, where the fantastical illuminates the forces at work underneath day to day life, but it also explains perfectly what I'd like to see more of in today's franchise films. 

Realism in fantasy and sci-fi can be extremely effective and I can think of no better example than the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. While BSG did have thrilling space battles, its primary drama came from the confusion of people trying to survive in extraordinary circumstances. And rather than try to model 'right' or 'wrong' behavior in resolving its crises, Battlestar set up its characters and conflict separately and then let them interact organically. The decisions the characters made were based on a believable cocktail of incomplete information, pain, instinct, and prejudice. The consequences of those decisions didn't end, but rolled forward to become the conditions for the next conflict.

This is why the religion storyline was fantastic in the first season but detracted from later seasons. In the first season we didn't know if the visions were real or if beloved characters were losing their minds. Given the catastrophic stakes in the story, that tension was gripping. Once confirmed as real, though, religion lost its interest as a theme. The story was already, as Gondry said, in a heightened world and didn't need magic on top of robots and spaceships.

I miss this element of realism in today's franchise blockbusters. If everyone is Super and the world is Super and the villains are Super and every scene builds toward a climactic battle between good and evil, well, that gets boring. And I say this as someone who subsisted on an unfiltered diet of Star Wars, anime, fantasy novels, and comic books for about 15 years.

I get that people are tired of 'gritty reboots'. Humor and light are good. But genre fiction is at its best when it acts as a funhouse mirror for our own world and I'm finding the cartooniness of today's franchises a bit underwhelming. The world is a mess and I look to fiction to help me make sense out of the deeper impulses at work in life. Gondry and Lynch use fantastical elements to evoke the inarticulable but nevertheless real things that we feel and experience. Sci-fi and fantasy can do this too, and do it well, so it's a shame to see their time in the global limelight take so little advantage of this fact.  

My First Television Job

Last week was a banging one – I had my first television job AND participated in the blockbuster two-day MoCap Summit UK 2016 with the MoCap Vaults. I'll write more on the Summit in a future post as it will take a bit of time to digest. So for now let's talk about TV.

What an experience! I shouldn't say what the project was yet, but it involved mask work for a period drama. My background is in Jacques Lecoq, an earthy style of movement training rooted in ancient theatre traditions including a wide array of masks. Mask is a fantastic and under-utilized realm of performance and it was a rare treat to be asked to put those skills to use in a mainstream project.

It was also a great lesson in the battle of practicality vs artistic ambition that exists in television. Under the guidance of our fantastic movement director, Elizabeth Grace, we had created an ambitious, fun, acrobatic performance fit for royalty. On our rehearsal day the episode's director stopped by after wrap to see the piece and loved it.

Then came the day of the shoot.

Early that morning we performed on set for the first time with the cast and extras in place. The director saw immediately that it was too big for the amount of people in the room and too long to fit the shoot schedule. Suddenly our job went from doing cool stuff to efficiently adapting our work on the fly. Within 10 minutes we'd trimmed it from 3 minutes down to 45 seconds and morphed our explosive choreography into a grounded style that could fit inside of a small wooden dome barely big enough for two people.

We did a lot of devising at LISPA, where I studied, and one of our teachers used to say that there always came a point where you had to kill your babies. Not literally, obviously. But what she meant was that sometimes that cool thing you did, that idea that you love, doesn't fit with the needs of the project. In this case our lovely masked performance, though it will be featured as part of the episode, is part of a larger scene. And that scene is not strictly about us, but rather the springboard for action on the part of the main characters. So our work had to change to fit the narrative of the episode. Furthermore, because of the magic of television: editing, long shots, closeups, playing with background and foreground, they're going to get a lot of mileage out of the relatively short amount of material that we shot. It's still going to look fantastic and that will be especially, not in spite of, the fact that we adapted it to the needs of the production. 

Amidst all of this, I got to meet and work with an actor who played one of my favorite characters in one of my favorite TV series, so that was an extra little thrill, and it gave my 'play-it-cool' muscle a good workout. All in all it was an absolutely fantastic experience. I can't wait to see the finished product and hopefully I'll find myself back on set very soon!

That's all for now. Stay tuned for a big MoCap Summit writeup coming soon.

Puppetry and Movement Workshop in London, 16 July

Moving With Puppets and Objects

A workshop for physical performers – dancers, physical theatre actors, circus artists – to explore combining their own practice with puppetry and object work. What is the significance of the objects on stage with you and how can you give them their own presence while maintaining your own? The workshop will explore these questions with an introduction to basic puppetry skills, followed by a short workshop space for participants to combine these skills with their own practice and then share their work for group feedback. Participants are welcome to bring a character, puppet, or object from a current project to work on (material should be no more than 1 minute in length) or use this time to create something new from scratch.

Alex Lehman is a physical theatre actor, puppeteer, and motion capture performer. A graduate of the Lecoq-based training at the London International School of Performing Arts, he has worked with Polka Theatre, Theatre Rites, Concert Theatre, Dotted Line Theatre, and On the Button, among others, and has done motion capture work for the video games industry.

Saturday 16th July, 12 p.m. - 5 p.m., at Chisenhale Dance Space, 64 - 84 Chisenhale Road, London, E3 5QZ
Participant fee £30

For more information, or to book a space, please get in touch through the Contact page