Stuntman, Actor, Action Designer, SAG-AFTRA

I don’t like to sugar-coated my reviews of action films, and I never have. I wrote action movie reviews back in 1998, and later on some people involved in those films saw the reviews and complained. As a stuntman, this probably lost me some jobs, but I’ve earned some jobs too, since smart directors and animators want the best, and posting a “hell yeah” for every new Marvel series fight scene doesn’t draw in smart directors.

So in the service of truth, I’ll tear these fight scenes apart for you and expose their raw meaty bits for all to see.

Opening shot: cliche opener. Camera dollies back to reveal triangle choreo. We know exactly what will happen because this is such a typical shot. For a fight with so much blood, there’s no real shock value to the opener.

Sanada’s sword comes across as weak, something traditional sword choreographers would have laughed at. The throat and stomach cuts don’t phase these guys, even though it bleeds them. Yet an empty-handed neck-grab is effective. The crossed swords is a good shape but these ninjas are too tame. You need threatening enemies to make a formidable hero. When the enemies flail about, the hero can do cool stuff all day, but it won’t mean anything.

Ninja throws a high kick, a dumb move against a sword. He has a sword sheath. Is it empty? Did he lose his sword in some choreo that got edited out? Also, final stab through head comes down at weird angle. They could’ve used a closeup on his bleeding eyes, too. This is also very tame.

This segment is a failure on all levels. Sanada’s the best Japanese kicker in film history and they made him shove a 185-pound stunt guy with a kick. You can’t make a good looking kick with this. Bad choreo, shooting, and editing. He deserves better.

Stunt guys stand around box stepping until they get hit. You could fix this with shooting and editing, but the choreo is still stale.

The spear through the head deserves a closeup. That’s a fatality. But instead they continue to a stunt fall that lacks shock since the stuntman antics the fall too early. Sends the wrong message. The spear should do the killing, not the fall. Bad payoff. Also very tame.

The random cutouts to wide shots keep us from seeing what’s going on. Also, Sanada has to repeat-kill everyone, like guy on left getting stabbed then tripped (cool kick). Sanada would have been powerful if they let him do more one-hit kills.

These running ninjas have no plan. They just run up and get hit. Camera hides the second one, but the first runner is so eggy it hurts. Cool move by Sanada at the beginning, though. He looks far better and economical than anyone else.

Ninja does the box step until he gets killed. Nice deadman at the end. A deadman is when they move a performer and then use a wire to stop them in an opposing direction. Good impact, but this is the wrong finisher for the fight. Should’ve been a spear through the brain. Again, very tame.

Final thoughts: Sanada looks good as always, but he needs a better team. This choreo lacks danger and shock, which contrasts with the violence. There’s no respect for the blade, no real payoffs based on MK lore. Missed opportunities everywhere.

The violence is so tame and is just your typical, cheap, visual effects-based blood. Anyone can do this level of blood now. Was this a budgetary issue? If so, this just means the priorities were out of whack. Blood should be everywhere in MK, and gore. Did they pull back to appease international censors? There’s probably a blood-less version out there too.

The choreo doesn’t live in the location. Sanada should’ve speared a guy through the head into a tree to show power. But there’s no interaction with any of the environment. This happens when the team pre-vizzes in a gym, but they can’t (or don’t) add anything on location.

The enemies are weak and dumb. That’s fine, but you have to kill them with one hit then, or the hero looks weak and dumb too. They also require multiple kill shots, so they’re also strong, yet they’re agile. So there’s no theme to the enemies. Too much time wasted on them.

The spear isn’t paid off properly. Rope dart choreo is cool but technically very difficult. If this is the intro for Scorpion’s spear, they missed a huge opportunity.

If the rest of the film’s action is like this, then MK is another failed attempt to capture the fun and shock value of the series. They need to be careful who they hire to make these things. Remember Tekken from 2009? No? Exactly.

Vaporwave is fascinating. Something about it is very soothing, despite being totally eerie.

I’ve used some Vaporwave aesthetics in some of my past videos:

I began obsessing over this strange sub-genre of music. The air of nostalgia you get from this stuff is mind-boggling. For example, if you’re an American born in the 80s, then one whiff of Kmartwave will rocket you into the past with a shot of energizing and depressing aesthetics all at once. You can practically smell the throw pillows and feel the L’eggs containers.

How do we explain this strange spell that Vaporwave puts over us?

We could try and explain Vaporwave by identifying its aesthetics: distorted music sampling, a VHS video filter with audio hiss, Japanese characters, short all-caps fonts, shopping malls, surrealism, and general nostalgia. Vaporwave artists will use North Korea, the Soviet Union, shopping malls, Windows 95, and Donald Trump for aesthetic inspiration.

The standard “theory” of Vaporwave might begin with an origin story of John Oswald sampling and warping a Dolly Parton song, coining the process “plunderphonics,” followed by the legal hurdles he encountered.

It’s tempting to plant a flag here, say Vaporwave is a “music of the people,” and call it a day, but that would be dating us. Plus, any political angle will have to account for those people who also claim Vaporwave.

The theory could then cite the psychological aspects of Vaporwave like hypnagogia, the transitional stage between being awake and asleep, and its nostalgic qualities.

These theorists – the entire Theory Machine really – writes endless volumes of boring stuff like this. The Wiki article is not much help. This Aesthetics wiki is slightly more descriptive:

Vaporwave is a music genre branching from electronic Chillwave. But the unique and iconic visual aesthetic cultivated alongside it is now, debatably, more popular and recognizable than the music itself. Vaporwave, as an aesthetic and movement, has been described as a tongue-in-cheek commentary on modern consumerism and the soulless glamour of late capitalism. Its purposeful vagueness has led to more overt and blatant offshoots of Vaporwave, like Fashwave (which attempts to co-opt a lot of Vaporwave  symbolism to promote a fascist ideology) or Laborwave (which removes the ambiguity of Vaporwave’s capitalist critiques in favor of promoting a Marxist ideology), though both of them also tend to blend in a lot of Synthwave aesthetics as well, leading to many people assuming the two aesthetics are the same.

Still, this reads like the symptoms on a pharmaceutical sleep aid. Describing Vaporwave like this would be like describing alcoholism as “drinking a lot of booze, sometimes hard liquor, sometimes beer, or wine, and not letting one’s self become sober. Some alcoholics also smoke cigarettes and gamble. Alcoholics get headaches, X% of them are men, and sometimes they drive their cars into oncoming traffic.”

This level of writing is acceptable for a 4th grader writing a book report. But a 4th grader has no idea of what a book is to an author, nor what alcoholism is to an alcoholic, nor what Vaporwave is to the Vaporwave-listener. The Theory Machine fails on this level.

Even as Vaporwave listeners, we don’t seem to know what Vaporwave is to us.

And yet we find ourselves escaping to Vaporwave to give us a strange feeling which will transport us somewhere else. Why do we feel that need? Does Vaporwave scratch that particular itch? Why are we curious of the eerie? What is the eerie?

Eerie vaporwave shopping mall feels

To really explain Vaporwave, we need to explain our strange desire to experience it.

Since we can’t explain this desire with the Theory Machine, we can try tackling the subject the way we’d tackle an addiction. Addictions aren’t tackled by listing their symptoms, but by getting behind the spirit of the thing.

As I’ve said before, I offer no red pills or checker pills or translucent pills for this.

Instead, there’s 【the deer】.

【the deer】

【the deer】 can help us understand the eerie, the inexplicable aspect of Vaporwave that we can’t put into words.

【the deer】is better understood in reverse. Once you get to the end of this post, you’ll have understood it! But if you’re more linear than that and want a nuts-and-bolts explanation before going forward, read what Eric Gans has to say here: A Brief Introduction to Generative Anthropology.

In short, 【the deer】 exists only in the eerie, in the in-between states of things. It’s neither this nor that. That’s what makes 【the deer】 a handy decoder ring for Vaporwave, and perhaps more.

Take Korean shamanism, for example. The Theory Machine would list the sacrificial animals, the colors of the sacred clothes, etc. You’ll find this in every Britannica. 【the deer】, however, would say that Korean Shamans are kind of… annoyed that they have to be shamans.

You can hear the scientists in the room snickering at Ms. Geul-Moon. She’s either lying, crazy, or misled. Neil would advise her to just take a pill. (Neil DeGrasse Tyson should agree to an actual debate. To date, he hasn’t had one.)

【the deer】, on the other hand, would say that Ms. Geul-Moon is just explaining the spirit of the thing at hand. She’s brutally honest about her situation. She’s at some place between here and there, and 【the deer】 has no problem saying, “Yep, that’s a shitty place to be.”

So, 【the deer】 is a sort of first-principle regarding the eerie. Vaporwave is eerie, so maybe 【the deer】 has something to say about it.

What the **** is Vaporwave?

We start by trying to isolate what Vaporwave is.

What aspect of Vaporwave is its most prominent? It’s not an anti-capitalist political statement, because we also have Trumpwave and fashwave. It’s not Japanophilic, because there’s also Juchewave and Sovietwave. Something else binds all Vaporwave.

One characteristic of Vaporwave is nostalgia.

Nostalgia is that emotion when you resurrect the past for a moment. Since the past is dead and buried, nostalgia disappears like sea foam in your hands. This ephemerality adds to nostalgia’s power as a coping mechanism.

But lots of things are nostalgic. This isn’t unique to Vaporwave.

There’s one other characteristic of Vaporwave that is particular to the genre: decay.

Decay is one of Vaporwave’s most eerie and appealing aspects.

If we combine this with Vaporwave’s odd focus on multimedia art around the time of Windows 95 and the PS1, we pinpoint what might be at the heart of the Vaporwave aesthetic:

Vaporwave is nostalgia for decay before the late 1990s.

Hear me out.

 

decay

In the past, all media was analog. Ancient media like Hammurabi’s code and the hieroglyphs were carved in stone and survived for millennia with only gradual decay. Paintings have survived for a thousand years. Books damaged by water can be restored, old records can be cleaned and replayed for probably a couple centuries, and a VHS is still good for (maybe) a hundred years.

Analog media has a broad range of decay. Its liminal state, the in-between period between its original art and total destruction, lasts for centuries. During this liminal state, analog media still serves its original artistic function. There’s still something there. It’s still art. Unless you burn it in the streets.

Binary media doesn’t decay, at least not like analog media. Music CDs are spirals of 1s and 0s, but they still wear out, usually faster than analog media. When the CD laser begins mistaking 0s for 1s, it’s not music anymore. It becomes noise. Old DVDs glitch and stop being movies. Old files won’t open. That one Kindle book is no longer available.

Binary media doesn’t decay. Either it’s entirely there, or it’s garbage. It has no liminal state. Broken binary media is no longer itself. It’s dead. It stops being art.

We have nostalgia for these liminal states in analog media, because those are the states in which we experience most analog media. We experienced most of our VHS tapes with some acceptable level of tracking issues, audio tapes with hiss, and game systems with analog video noise.

Why the Liminal is Creepy

liminal lĭm′ə-nəl

adj. Intermediate between two states, conditions, or regions; transitional or indeterminate.
adj. Existing at the limen. Used of stimuli.
Pertaining to the threshold or entrance; hence, relating to the beginning or first stage; inceptive; inchoative.
Source

The liminal is the threshold, the place between inside and outside, neither here nor there. That’s a crazy place to be! How can you be neither inside nor outside? They’ll kill a goat just to get out of there!

H. Clay Trumbull, Threshold Covenant (New York, 1896) p. 15

The liminal state of analog media is creepy. Liminal states are generally just weird, and very aesthetic. Here’s an interesting take on creepy, aesthetic, liminal places:

There is a liminal between everything. Man and beast, heaven and earth, winter and spring, spoon and fork. Strange objects symbolize the liminal.

A man is first alive, and then he’s dead. The liminal state between these two phases of nature is terrifying. It’s the “Saigon Execution” moment. It’s also the deathbed, and the zombie.

This state of being, neither alive nor dead, can’t be categorized. Liminal states in general can’t be categorized. They’re undifferentiated. States of undifferentiation terrify us because they evade symbolic language.

The Need for Symbols

Humans use symbolic language to decode the world into meaningful ideas. Symbolic language requires categories. A boy is a boy, and a man is a man. The liminal state between boy and man defies category, and thereby defies language itself. This state is compared with death, and it’s not uncommon for the boy to emerge from the liminal state with a new name. The boy is dead. Now a man is in his place.

The priesthood will try and convince you that human, symbolic language is on a spectrum between banana and alien. 【the deer】 cannot help these people. If you’d like a much smarter, and challenging, understanding of human language, again, 【the deer】 points to Gans, this time to his Origin of Language.

The taboo, liminal space between life and death has puzzled many. You’re not dead, but you’re not really alive either. How do we categorize you? Throw you outside into the bush! Now you’re categorized as leopard food.

The [South Africans] formerly buried their dead, but now only chiefs and persons of consequence are interred. “When they think that death is approaching, they carry out the sick person into a thicket near the kraal, and leave him to expire alone; for they have a great dread of being near, or touching, a corpse, and imagine that death brings misfortune on the living when it occurs in a hut or kraal.” (p. 357)

George Thompson: Travels and Adventures in Southern Africa (London, 1827)

Modern hospice is a much nicer. Not all new things are dumb.

Liminal states defy language. How do we process them? This data is injected into the emotional centers of our brains. This is straight-up PTSD. These emotional memories need to be moved into rational, symbolic domains, quick.

Pills cannot do this work for us. EMDR helps, but there are other, better weapons.

【the deer】 is our weapon. 【the deer】 is the ultimate anti-PTSD device.

Day of the Dead provides some interesting insight into the liminal between life and death. The Theory Machine will drone on about how quaint the festival is, while totally missing the damn point. They’ll talk aesthetics: skeleton facepaint, pan de muertos, and colorful paper. These people are in the business of doing 4th grade book reports. We can totally ignore them. Instead, we’ll use 【the deer】.

【the deer】’s understanding of Day of the Dead:

Day of the Dead gives concrete, symbolic meaning to the liminal space between life and death. Performing a death ritual moves data from your emotional memory into your rational, symbolic memory.

This is how you remove PTSD from the community. You can do your own research, but it’s generally accepted, even by the Theory Machine, that mental health in ancient, ritual society was really damned good.

The people who work for the Theory Machine, however, don’t like categories. Categories, to them, are too absolutist. They will say that humans, dead or alive, are all the same carbon junk. Perhaps pickup trucks don’t necessarily have beds, and 2+2 can equal a lot of things. This kind of thinking has been called postmodernism.

If postmodern thinking is opposed to categories, then a postmodern thinker will store data in the emotional parts of their brains. PTSD and depression are immanent. Don’t bother listening to postmodern thinkers.

The Liminality of Human Culture

Music about uncertainty, films about transitions from one place to another, the story arc of the character from beginning to end. The liminal space between here and there, between life and death, and between new and decaying, is aesthetic.

All art is liminal in some way, by virtue of it being analog. Because the real world is analog.

Binary decay, by contrast, has no liminal. There’s no aesthetic. If binary media decays, there’s no liminal, and the art disappears. If art disappears, there’s no culture.

Some say we haven’t had culture since 2010. Maybe it’s because pop culture no longer decays.

Of course buildings and paintings still decay, but those represent less than 0.1% of our pop culture. Our gods aren’t granite statues or massive murals. Granite gods decay and can be toppled, which undermines their divinity.

No, our gods are delivered to us digitally via our streaming platform of choice. And these gods are just as perfect today as they were 20 years ago. You can’t protest and topple Captain America. You can only disappear him permanently.

Censorship leaves burned books and bones behind. It’s analog and aesthetic.

But disappearing something digitally is totally strange, unnatural, and non-aesthetic.

There’s no longer an aesthetic, and so there’s no more culture. If humans produce anything with their hands, it’s culture. If we aren’t producing culture, are we still human?

Aside from airport bookstores and some blurays in the checkout line, and clothing lines, the media distribution system for pop culture is almost entirely binary. Streaming and DRM is either on or off. You don’t really own your mediaSoon you won’t own your seat. Or your toothbrush. Or anything.

Multimedia platforms will allow some old media to avoid decay. Acceptable items that avoid the censer will be remastered, up-rezzed, and re-released.

The rest of the media are off the shelves, left to decay until they’re forgotten. It’s far easier than burning it in the street.

When we listen to Vaporwave, we grasp for that moment of decay. The decay of culture.

The postmodern way of thinking, with its aversion to categories, is spreading throughout the entire Theory Machine. It’s no wonder it can’t explain anything, whereas 【the deer】 has no problems explaining anything.

Maybe 【the deer】 can help us further. Maybe it can help us let go of the past, and begin working on actual solutions.

  • Continue the conversation below, or chat with me in my Telegram channel at t.me/ericjacobus.

Another day, another book burned, another body on the pyre. Are they allowed to do that? How do they get away with it? We’re baffled. We can’t answer these questions with our current toolkit.

Since we work in media, we need to understand censorship, which means understanding the priesthood. The rational part of our brains recoils at the very thought of a priesthood. But the remaining 90% of the brain might understand it perfectly well, if we can wake it up.

Someone is unleashing a lot of stuff downstream at us. Anecdotal news, social media, and streaming services, all great diversions, all stink like shit. At the source is our answer. Getting there seems to be like trying to run a sailboat up rapids. It’s actually easier than that.

Who’s behind the stream? Is it AI? Are aliens running things? Lizard people? Put the glasses on! No. These unfalsifiable hypotheses are the media’s everlasting gobstoppers. Good for ads, bad for fact-finding missions. We won’t even humor them.

It’s obvious who is pumping this stuff downstream. They have blue check marks, they do all the news interviews, they pop up in documentaries, and you’ve seen their movie collections. But they would never call themselves a priesthood. They say, “There is no priesthood.” They’re just like you and me, right? Kind of.

There’s always a priesthood. The question is whether or not this priesthood is legitimate. So with some used books we’ll devise a test to determine what makes a priesthood legit. We’ll run this simple test, and the strip will read either red or green.

If our priesthood fails this test, that doesn’t mean we can kick them out or burn their temple down. They’re the priesthood. We can’t just kick them out.

But we can identify their turf, language, and distribution channels. We can then avoid it like the plague.

We should be able to come away from this exercise with a testing strip that can be used on any priesthood we encounter. Maybe one of them will make the strip turn green.

Or we could resign to the water cooler to bitch about tech censorship. But we’re working remotely and have no water cooler. So it’s time to pull the sailboat out of the river, and see what we can learn.

A brief history of censership (not a misspelling)

In a recent post I argued that social media algorithms aren’t censoring you. They’re just doing keeping things relevant on social media platforms to give users the experience they’ve been promised. If the promised experience of a social media platform is rage and selling a lot of ads, then you should buy some of its stock.

AI aren’t people. Despite what Peter Diamandis might say, they can’t tell a funny joke or a write good story. AI can’t censor because AI only does what it’s told by its authors.

The AI can’t censor, because that’s a job for priests only. And AI can’t be priests. Only people can censor, and not just any people.

For all of human history the priesthood has been responsible for maintaining the human order. They record and maintain the rules, act as spokespeople (or hire spokespeople), perform sacrifices, etc. We might not really care about this stuff. We don’t visit their temple after all, but the priesthood makes sure the rain comes. They’ll take responsibility for it anyway. If it doesn’t rain, it’s because we didn’t go to the temple.

One important tool of the priesthood is the censer, where they burn incense for the gods. The priesthood has very strict guidelines for what can go into a censer and who can use one. They’ll kill your ass if you break this law.

The fire of a censer cleanses the impurities of whatever is put into it. Golden idols imbibed with spirits can be melted down and turned into coins or spoons or whatever. Animals are reduced to their pure, white bones that will look good on a necklace. And burning an unholy book results in a pile of dark, useless ashes. The gods will destroy what they don’t approve of.

Gold and animals are approved offerings. Books are not. By burning a book the priest might be offering dangerous, strange fire. So with the swapping of a vowel, a handy tool in our handy bag of lexicon tricks, we can call this a censor instead. Now we can burn whatever we want to test its purity.

Our priests know better than to burn books in the streets. Too much baggage associated with book-burning. Too many bad memories.

So a clever tactic developed by the priesthood today is ensuring censored objects are less and less available. Anyone who recreates, reprints, or remasters the object is in violation. Criterion ensures that holy items never disappear. There will always be a remaster of Kurosawa’s films (the approved items can often be good, you know).

But the unholy items… well, the gods simply… fix that stuff. Banned objects now have a tendency to drop off the planet. No distribution, no reprinting with a new introduction by an esteemed professor, no remastering to an 8K disc.

(This is a fine time to shamelessly plug my theory that Vaporwave is nostalgia for gradual media decay.)

Don’t worry, you can still get all your favorite banned movies on Laserdisc and VHS, Karen. These may or may not be within your budget. You can do your banned movie nights. The stuff is decaying, so nobody cares.

At any rate, this is why we call the cleansing act of book-burning “censor-ship“. Nothing is new, except words.

And whatever you do, you absolutely cannot touch a censer, which means you cannot be a censor, if you’re not in the priesthood. Think you can censor a book? You tried, and you failed. These gods will not accept your burnt offering, Karen. You are not authorized, Karen. Criterion and Yale will remaster and reprint the things you destroy a thousand times over. Don’t even try being a censor if you’re not in the priesthood.

Want to be authorized? You’ll die before you can become a censor, Karen.

(No offense to the Karens of this world. I’m only using their language to make a very serious point.)

Image result for book burning

Pills Won’t Save Us

All this talk about the priesthood… is it rational thinking? No. Did people once think like this? Yes. This is ancient thinking, done by ancient people. But these people also cut off a finger to stop nose bleeds. Why would we want to think like that? Aren’t we beyond that now? Neil DeGrasse Tyson says they were full of shit. There’s a pill for that. Science!

We’re trained to use rationality and Science to filter the world. When the toaster breaks, we don’t call a shaman. Rationality saves us a trip to the doctor’s office. Rationality is useful for a lot of things.

Ancient thinking is not rational. It functions in the realm of the sacred world. Toasters malfunction in the profane, material world. We need a new way of thinking in order to deal with this other world. We do not need a pill.

If we put ourselves in the shoes of Cortes, standing in Tenochtitlan, in front of ten thousand corpses with hearts ripped out, we’re trained to filter this scene through rationality. We’re left scratching our heads. Were they hungry? Were they misled? Maybe we avoid the question by engaging in the Science of historical dissonance.

Our rational minds are totally unprepared to deal with the likes of the sacred world. We’re totally baffled. If an Aztec attempted to explain the blood debt requirements of the calendar, we’d get the guy on pills immediately.

And yet, isn’t our current situation just as baffling? How do we explain tech censorship? How do we explain how a joke can destroy you? Aren’t we supposed to debate this stuff or something? Instead we find a pile of corpses with their hearts ripped out, and we’re as baffled as Cortes.

Critical thinking can do a lot of things. It can reverse engineer a jet fighter or an Intel processor or a nuclear reactor. It can’t reverse-engineer the performance art of the priesthood. The sacred is a one-way flow of information. Creation myths are md5 encoded, directions to the temple are written in an indecipherable language that only 500 people can read, and the criteria for banned objects changes with the wind.

We continue to be baffled. We reach for a red pill, or a clear pill, or something to help us get through the day. To help us avoid being destroyed.

The pills help, for a moment. Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s starry pill might alleviate the occasional seizure exorcism, but it has an area of effect that will spill into that precious remaining 90% of our brains and render us drooling zombies at Cosmos House. A built-in feature of the pill is submission to the pill-maker.

No. If we want to understand censorship, and the priesthood, we need to understand the sacred, which means understanding our ancient neighbors, who really understood the sacred. No red pills or clear pills or checker pills can get us there. Throw the pill box out. It has only confused us.

Horse Shit River

We have to start our investigation at the relentless stream of shit that the priesthood spews downstream, because that’s where we live. That’s all we know.

Horse Shit River is the 24-hour cycle of news that doesn’t affect us, a stream of raving reviews of garbage media that we don’t like, and opinions we don’t want to hear. It all smells like horse shit.

Let’s examine the 24-hour anecdotal news cycle. The journalist is tasked with selecting anecdotes that fit the story arc. This is shit news for selling ads. It’s not actual information that can guide us.

In a hypothetical forest, elves and orcs live together, but they have two different news channels. Elf News says, “The forest belongs to the elves.” Stories of orcs stomping elves to death and clear-cutting the forest for their log cabins litter the news ticker.

Then there’s Orc News, which says, “The orc refugees need a home.” Stories of elves burning orc homes and killing orc babies with magic lassos are the typical stories here.

Elf News does not report orc baby deaths, and Orc News does not report elf-stomping. No orc would watch Elf News, nor vice versa.

There’s also fake news propagated by both sides, which is rarely retracted, never with much notice.

Fake news, whether from elves and orcs, is unacceptable, and real accounts of violence are horrific, whether perpetrated against orcs or elves. And yet Horse Shit River rages through the mythical forest too, stinking it up, and so reasonable orcs and elves hate each other. The horse shit drives them insane.

In our world, we’re not too bothered by Horse Shit River. We’ve turned off the app notifications, installed ad blockers, and moved over to RSS.

But our friends, family, and coworkers seem to drink and bathe in this stuff. We have fact-checked it and can produce a compelling report that the news outlets on both sides are just ad-selling corporations.

They don’t give a damn. Or they have the nerve to say, “I don’t pay attention to the news,” and yet they have a subscription list a mile long of YouTubers ranting about current events, and they follow Twitter users who do nothing but report on exactly half of the anecdotal news out there. They fill their heads with this stuff and seem very up to date about incidents in distant lands which shouldn’t matter to them, and they’re generally pissed off at the other side, who are ruining everything.

They’re just as bad as the elves and orcs.

A Cosmology – Humanity’s Thought Core

We don’t like this horse shit, because we reject the cosmology around here. This isn’t critical thinking. This is something deeper down. It’s as if our very bones absolutely hate this stuff. Can we explain it? Do we need to?

The priesthood and all its duties always coalesce around a central cosmology. A cosmology is more than just a story. A cosmology is a device which mediates between the subject (you) and reality (everything else).

(I’ve struggled to find a better word that cosmology. Words like ideology and religion are loaded with baggage, and terms like kernel and operating system are too mechanical and don’t function in the same order. “Cosmology” conjures up images of palm readers and horoscopes, but it’s the best I’ve got.)

Armed with a compelling cosmology, a priesthood acquires the insanely powerful position of being the liaison between you and reality.

Without a compelling cosmology, they’re just crazies who shout at pedestrians.

You might have noticed a lot of crazies shouting at pedestrians lately. Many of them live downtown under tarps. But a lot of crazies shouting at pedestrians have blue check marks on Twitter.

Our poor, misled friends and family religiously follow and parrot these Verified Accounts. We often ask, “Why do you listen to these crazies?”

By carefully picking anecdotes that serve the narrative, Verified Accounts restrict their audience’s field of view so they don’t come upon non-conforming anecdotes. Bringing a non-conforming anecdote into the discussion is strictly forbidden. This person will be fact-checked, cancelled, forced to apologize, and placed on permanent probation. In a cult, at least they give you a mat to sleep on.

And yet, these Verified Accounts, and all their followers, will look you in the eye and say with a straight face, “There is no priesthood.”

We’re in the business of truth-seeking. We’re not in the business of joining a cult. We see a lot of normal, well-meaning people doing this. We’d like to stop our friends, family, and coworkers from following suit. Our loved ones will try and lure us toward the cult with clickbait anecdotes, but we won’t respond with counter-anecdotes. Because if our knight takes their pawn, then their rook takes our knight, and then…

We’re done playing anecdote chess.

This priesthood might be immune from rationality. So we need to learn to think in terms of the sacred, just to understand what’s happening. Jung can’t help us in these parts. Even Frazer, after giving us the a map or two, will inform us that we’re on our own.

The Polluting Source of Horse Shit River

Having pulled our pathetic sailboat out of the raging rapids, we decide to walk along the river, upstream, to uncover the source of the relentless flow of horse shit that’s polluting the waters of our modern world.

Most folks here in the valley are content dealing with their shitty river. Some make a decent living blogging and editorializing about it. Others make money analyzing it. Some sell “Welcome to Horse Shit River” t-shirts. They’re all in the horse shit business and they reek of it everywhere they go.

We’d rather not be in the business of dealing with horse shit. We just want to know where it’s coming from. We go upstream to try and locate this massive horse-shit-generator.

Going upstream, through a lot of overgrowth and past some impressive crags, we encounter schools, movie theaters, coal mines and a big trucking company with a lot of rock piles. None of them are the source of the horse shit.

Beyond these is a large factory on the river’s edge. Looking upstream from the factory we spot clean, fishable water. So this factory is definitely the horse-shit-generator.

They’re also on Google Maps. We could have driven here. This place is no secret. But nobody comes here.

Upon arrival at the factory, we’re shocked to discover an “OPEN” sign on the front door. Inside, a lady named Betty invites us to a free tour. Nobody’s taken a free tour since the factory opened, so we take the nice lady up on her offer and hop on the golf cart.

The Factory tour begins with a video acknowledging the stream of horse shit flowing into the river. They spend a lot of money on horse-shit offsets. We accept this and continue on.

We learn that the factory produces a widget. This widget isn’t just some fidget spinner to sooth our OCD. This widget is an easy-to-understand guide for the perplexed that fits comfortably in our palm.

This widget has three characteristics: reliability, verifiability, and power. Betty describes these in detail:

1. The widget is reliable.

The widget’s springs and gears have been designed by the best in the business, and it’ll run forever. For all we know it’s been running since the beginning of time. Its permanence guarantees the widget will withstand anything thrown at it.

The widget’s workings represent the permanent cycles of the cosmos. Just as the battle between Apsu and Tiamat created the world, Romulus and Remus created Rome, and the oppressed fighting their oppressors created entire governments, the permanence of the cosmic cycle is thus represented by this widget and makes it very reliable.

This cosmic order deals primarily with human affairs, which is an ethic. When our ancient ancestors realized they could kill each other with tools, and animals could not, they became paralyzed in the face of mutual destruction. An ethics of violence resulted.

The human mirror neuron system is a rapacious, violence generator, uniquely capable of total, mutual destruction (and to our credit, we can also build cool skyscrapers). Our capacity for total destruction requires an incentive not to totally mutually destroy. The widget has that ethic baked in. It must.

The widget would be very unethical if it destroyed all humans. Anti-humanism is actually pretty rational, but it has no place in a cosmology. Total destruction means nobody will be left to enjoy the widget. There would be no point, then.

The widget must assure its owners that total, mutual destruction is not immanent. We’re secure in knowing that, at least for the Widget’s user, there’s no sunset on our human endeavors. Thus the widget is reliable.

2. The widget is verifiable.

The widget’s cosmology is verified by science and history. This widget can explain just about anything on Wikipedia. The revolution of Mercury? The English Civil War? Maple syrup? The widget explains all. Perhaps Wikipedia uses this same widget…

A defunct widget company once sold a widget called Widget 43 which also explained almost anything, but in a very different way. Unfortunately the ethic was, let’s just say, of its time. Widget 43 seemed to be burning down a lot of cities. So people stopped using Widget 43.

You can still get Widget 43 on eBay. You can find even older widgets if you know where to look. Some will get you invited to a conference for their novelty. Others will get you thrown on the pyre.

If this here widget can’t explain something, Betty says this is no problem. Someone can update the Wikipedia entry, write a press release to correct the error, or issue a memo that will make its way to every leader in the world. Do you have these editing privileges? Would you like to have them? The widget has these instructions, but they’re useless for you, Karen. Who are these instructions for? Are they instructions for priests!?

Anyway, this seems like a handy widget, but being curious folks, we think of a couple things off the top of our heads that the widget can’t explain, stuff that Wiki authors won’t bother addressing. Betty has heard this song and dance before. She assures us that the third aspect of the widget will convince us that this is the widget to take home.

3. The widget is powerful.

If you use this widget, you will become powerful, more powerful than you ever imagined. See, this widget is a power-seeker. You can use this widget in your home, school, corporation, government office, or Twitter account, and if you follow the power instructions, it will suck up power like a vacuum, and deposit it into your very own power account.

When the widget is near two or more people in a hierarchical relationship, for example a director and a PA, an elected official and a voter, or a Maleficent and a king, it registers a power imbalance. As the beholder, if you address the power imbalance and reduce the power differential between the two parties, the delta in power change is transferred to your account.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because all our friends, family, and coworkers have this widget. Patriots, immigrants, punk rockers, religious extremists, farmers, academics, and our Twitter friends around the world all have this widget. Some vote, some take to Twitter, and others punch pedestrians. All are ways to add to one’s power account.

When we have racked up a big enough power account, we might become Verified. Maybe we’ll be able to edit Wikipedia, or write that press release. Refer to #2 above for instructions. Just don’t fuck up and expose a crack in the Matrix.

The widget also comes with a warning written in 75 different languages: “Do not to reveal the amount of power in your power accounts.” The reason for this should be obvious. Revealing our power level gives other widget users an opportunity, no, an incentive, to knock our legs out from under us. They’ll do anything, from digging up 10-year-old tweets to fishing through your subscriptions, to take you down.

If other widget users smell power, they will take it. Because that’s how this widget works. For everyone. Even the people you hate. It’s the perpetual cycle of the cosmos, baked into this widget. Can you play at this game, Karen?

If you can, you will gain enough power to become the mediator between people and reality. This is the path to joining the priesthood.

And this is why, if you use this widget, you must deny the existence of the priesthood. Or you’ll find yourself on the pyre.

We thank Betty for the tour. She offers us a free widget, but we politely refuse and exit through the gift shop. “Come back again!” says the kind, old Betty. She’s not offended, she’s just happy she could talk to someone.

Clear Waters

Wait a minute, I thought we were coming here to shut down this horse-shit-producing factory and clean up the river! People are suffering! Why did you bring us here?!

We look in our pocket, and we discover…

We have this very same widget, dangling from our keychain.

This is embarrassing, but is it surprising? Didn’t we kinda know it was there already? Didn’t we come here thinking that we could suck power out of this whole situation for our own benefit? Maybe we could, if we could play the game. With enough power, we could eventually censor the censors, and cancel the cancellers. But then we’d be promoting the use of the same, horrible widget. The horse shit would keep flowing.

The point isn’t to beat them and take over. The point isn’t to join their ranks. The whole point was to get away from the horse shit.

I threw my widget out, which triggered the deletion of its power account. 110,000 followers on FB, 13,000 on Instagram. All gone, like tears in horse shit river.

We don’t shut down the factory. We don’t clean up the river.

We just move upstream to crystal clear, fishable waters. What exactly is up here? Don’t know yet. Lots to see.

What don’t we see? What don’t we smell? People burning at the stake. It’s here where the air, the water, and the information airwaves are totally clear and free of horse shit.

We now have a testing kit, the ultimate horse-shit detector, to determine whether the priesthood is legit. What’s the test?

  1. Is there a priesthood? Answer: Always, inevitably, yes.
  2. What’s its cosmology? See 1-3 above.
  3. Does the priesthood lie? If so, do they burn you on the pyre when you notice?

The testing strip is blood red.

Below is an action breakdown that’s not so much about action. This post is more about the spirit behind action. Our subject is Mr. Udaka, a Noh theater performer and mask-maker. Noh theater stems from the 1300s, and like any theatrical art form Noh is a precursor to modern action. If you want to understand Japanese action with its emphasis on poses and unique beats between action, study Noh.

In Noh theater the performer wears a mask, not to just pretend to be a character, but to “enter the realm of gods” (1:09), becoming possessed by the character represented by the mask. In Udaka’s own words (2:06), “The actors use a mask, a Noh mask, without fail, in order to reincarnate past occurrences in present times. In other words, the actor wearing a Noh mask is not acting as a modern-day person, but as a spirit or wraith.”

The sacred history of Noh stems from its origins as “monkey music” (Saragaku, 1:51), which shares a common origin in the monkey king legend that is prominant China and India. We might see Noh as a fun cosplay enterprise, but we should take Udaka’s own words more seriously than this. Cosplayers would never admit to being possessed by Iron Man, but Udaka-san’s an honest man and admits that, in Noh, the dedicated performer becomes totally compromised by the spirit world.

In The Puppet of Desire: The Psychology of Hysteria, Possession, and Hypnosis (trans. Eugene Webb, Stanford University Press, 1991) Jean Michel Oughourlian posits that possession rites aren’t simple entertainment affairs. While the audience watches the possession rite for recreation (“re-creation” is very telling here), all possession rituals imbibe the subject with a sort of “spiritual package” that transmits traditional cultural norms in one big download. The subject becomes the spirit for a moment in time.

Why would someone subject themselves to a possession rite? In Oughourlian’s analysis of the raw data of anthropologists like Frazer and Levi-Strauss, possession rites are no different than hypnosis. The subject has a problem, anything from an addiction to a spat of envy or whatever else might disrupt the community (and could contaminate them). These problems in Oughourlian’s view stem from the ego’s attempts to “backdate” the subject’s desires before his rival’s. For example, bouts of envy over a woman SHOULD be easily resolved by reminding the subject that the woman belonged to someone else first. In that fantasy world rationality reigns king and envy over money and success could be quickly eliminated. But our egos are tasked with reversing time to legitimize our desires starting around age 2. We become convinced that our desires came first. To correct this reversed timeline, clinical help is sought.

Jean Michel Oughourlian on desire

The doctor, usually a shaman, attaches the “resolving spirit” to the subject through music, dancing, and other contagious art forms. The subject receives the spirit mostly against their will, but the spirit, a new trusted model for the subject, has the effect of correcting the misaligned timeline during the possession. The cathartic effect is: hey buddy, look at your jacked up timeline. Your friend had the girl first, then you came in and messed things up. The subject believes for a moment that they’ve had a self-realization, repairing (at least in part) the desire timeline. A hypnotist functions the same way, as does EMDR, both of which reposition emotional issues into rational parts of the brain for proper processing. After a brief exorcism ritual, the spirit leaves, and the subject is left with the embarrassing realization that they messed up, but with some additional tools (and maybe a restraining order) they can now right their wrongs.

Possession ritual in Venezuela

Noh theater is a large-scale possession rite. Anybody who wants to imbibe themselves with the spirit of the ancients just has to follow Mr. Udaka’s methods. He uses couched, dramatic terms when describing the possession experience (6:30): “When you can perform without thinking and it surfaces naturally, once you reach that level, you will be able to experience a shining instance of serendipity.” Serendipity is the clarity of the possession experience. At least, it’s clarifying in the sense that you’re taking on a spirit that’s not your own. Imbibing spirits is also another term for getting drunk off your ass. Careful which spirits you drink.

The pacing of Noh gives us some insights into modern, Japanese physical art forms. When looking at the style of the Japan Action Club, founded by Sonny Chiba, you see an emphasis on poses and silhouettes. These are theatrical for a reason: the Japan Action Club is the film extension of Japanese theater. Beats between movements, called ma, are critical to the overall action design. Japan Action Club (now Japan Action Enterprise, JAE) members criticized undercranking, a standard feature of Hong Kong action cinema, claiming that it threatened to eliminate the ma in between movements1. The action in Junya Takagi’s Bad History (1989) epitomizes ma with lengthy, uncut, wide takes.

Takagi Junya
Bad History (1989)

Note the timing between movements (ma).

The ma between movements in Japanese action, epitomized by the Japan Action Club from its theatrical roots, gives Japanese action its distinct flavor. It’s something I never understood or appreciated until I worked as a motion capture stuntman on a Japanese game and developed the action understanding to even see it myself. Do the spiritual foundations of Noh theater permeate Japanese ma-based action? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Udaka ends the lesson as he talks to his ancestors at a cemetery. He rightly claims that as Noh disappears Japan is becoming a “robotic country driven solely by pure economics” (7:52). Removing the sacred from the people is the task of tyrants who destroy shared tradition to prop up their regime as the sole center of deferral. Even if you don’t defer to the same gods as Mr. Udaka, you can agree with his implication: the death of Noh is the death of Japanese ancestor-worship, the death of shared Japanese tradition.

Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=108d4KnZPxo

Follow me on Telegram: t.me/ericjacobus.

Timestamps:
1:09 “I can enter the realm of gods.”
1:51 Started out as Saragaku “monkey music”, from the monkey king, deep ties to the sacred world
3:19 Making his own masks out of wood
5:20 “When you have to think while performing the Noh dance, for example when you start wondering what are the next lyrics, or shoudl I be dancing like this next… It’s not a good sign when your mind staerts wantering like that.
6:30 “When you can perform without thinking and it surfaces naturally, once you reach that level, you will be able to experience a shining instance of serendipity
7:11 Bisiting and speaking to ancestors
7:30 Desire to maintain sacred institutions like Noh, tea ceremony, flower arrangements (ikebana) and martial arts.

References:
1. Interview, Yutaka Nozawa, Dec 10 2020. Many thanks to Yutaka for his insights.

There’s been a lot of talk about censorship on social media lately. Lots of it is legit. A lot of it is just ignoring.

To ignore is to say, “Say what you want, I have the right to make sure nobody hears it.” To censor is to say, “Say what you want and I’ll get you shamed, fired, arrested, or killed.”

Most of us probably experience more ignoring.

Social media ignores content that is irrelevant. Your followers won’t see your content because the filter eliminates irrelevant crap to make everyone happy and consuming ads. It’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.

Most social media have a relevance-based distribution structure. The “relevance” is based on two things:

  1. broad social relevance
  2. your brand

I’m not a very topical guy, so the goal has always been to build a specific brand and capitalize off that, regardless of the latest TikTok dance move or whose hair the president is sniffing. Below is a quick analysis of all the major social media platforms and how branding seems to work on them.

YouTube Branding

Branding on YouTube was a struggle for years. The brand was something like “cool, creative fight scenes”. With this brand, I peaked out at 1000 subscribers on my channel between 2005 and 2012.

Then I released Vader Strikes, it went viral, and my subscribers jumped to 10,000 overnight.

I then uploaded some short films to capitalize off my tenfold increase in viewership. Unfortunately most of the comments were, “Dude, where’s Vader?” We released some similar GoPro-filmed fps-style movies filmed the way we did Vader, but these weren’t received as well. So we released two more (superior) Vader films, which received a fraction of the original’s attention.

Two things happened here:

  1. I missed my chance to capitalize off Darth Vader. Had we followed up immediately with more, regular Vader content, we might have become the official “Star Wars fight brand“. This new audience didn’t care so much about the GoPro/FPS fight fight scenes, they just wanted Vader. When we released the 2 later Vader films, the enthusiasm was gone. Whether this was YouTube’s doing or the audience realized they had been conned into subscribing to some stunt guy’s channel, we lost most of our steam after the first release.
  2. I wasn’t conscious of our brand. The huge amount of traffic driven to the YouTube channel expected a “Star Wars brand“, but it was supposed to be a “cool, creative fight scene” brand. If I had wanted to brand us as the Star Wars fight scene channel, then this was the way to start it.

The YouTube channel slowly grew to around 20,000 subscribers over the next few years. Films like Rope A Dope helped boost the quality of subscribers. The brand changed and became “cool, creative action storytelling“.

We had a healthy stream of subscribers who then wanted “cool, creative action storytelling”. Seems most of the Vader fans had either walked away or turned away from the dark side to this better brand.

Then I released my first Tekken In Real Life video where I did Hwaorang’s movelist.

The video went viral, so made 30 more Tekken In Real Life (IRL) videos over the course of the next year, and my channel rocketed to about 120,000 subscribers. The good news was this landed me a job as Kratos, which more than made up for the year of labor that went into these videos.

The bad news was that I was now the Tekken IRL guy.

What’s the brand? I asked myself. Is it “Eric does video game stuff in real life“? Is it “creative action that transcends the film medium”? Or is it just “Tekken In Real Life”?

The Hotline Miami and Doom releases afterward didn’t mean much to this new subscriber base. Anything else we released got the comment, “Dude, where’s Tekken?” The brand had shifted to “Tekken IRL guy”.

This wasn’t entirely bad. I’ve made a living off doing motion capture ever since. But was I ready to shift brands? Or could I go back to the “cool, creative action storytelling” brand?

Blindsided: The Game did garner a heap of attention, so the better brand seemed to have stuck.

After doing God of War, I co-founded SuperAlloy and started making a bunch of 3D action films. This has had some positive results, but there’s been no huge uptick in subscribers or viewers:

Bottom line: YouTube is a solid distribution platform with a high preference for brand-relevance. Censorship issues aside, it continues to be the best video platform out there. Attempting to make money via ad revenue is a 60-hour-a-week job and not advised for people specializing in action movies. Making money via sponsorship is obviously doable but you’ll find yourself becoming a full-time editor. For action brand purposes the best use of YouTube is sending out YouTube links to secure contracts. Just be careful how you brand yourself, as your new subscribers might be expecting more of the thing that brought them there, and they won’t care about the stuff you made before that.

Facebook

My Facebook page sat at a thousand followers for years. In 2015, after Tekken IRL, it jumped to 50k. With a friend’s help I ran some ads and more than doubled that to 120k by end of 2016. Every one of the page’s followers wants Tekken. There’s almost zero traction on anything else. Brand is officially “Tekken IRL guy”.

Even Kung Fu vs. Zombies got almost nothing.

The last thing that received any traction was a video where I blew up a heavy bag.

News that I was Kratos got a bit of traction

Interestingly, this post requesting a Reddit AMA got a good chunk of traction:

But, only 0.5% of those likes (if any) translated into upvotes on Reddit:

Bottom line: I still have no idea what good a FB page is if you’re not selling vitamins or fitness classes. Translating a page like into a contract is almost impossible. Off-brand posts are almost totally invisible to your followers.

(As of writing this post I’m planning to shut down both my personal profile and public page. I know I said that a month ago. The only thing stopping me is some contact-gathering from my friends list.)

Twitter

My Twitter follower base has experienced a more steady increase over the course of 12 years. In 2020 I started posting action breakdown threads and I saw a slightly accelerated increase in followers. These breakdown posts averaged around 60 likes, many of which are very high quality eyes that could translate into contracts (stunt coordinator positions, consulting, etc.).

Then a political thing happened, and instead of posting about the political thing, I posted another action breakdown. It received 0 likes. It seems Twitter wanted me to be socially relevant first and brand-relevant second.

The last hot thread was the Red vs. Blue Zero breakdown.

Historical or anthropological threads like this one on the history of boxing get almost nothing. Maybe Twitter sees these as totally non-socially relevant.

Bottom line: Twitter followers are very high quality and personal and can translate easily to contracts. However, Twitter seems more geared toward social-relevance than brand-relevance. So conveying important info to one’s audience on Twitter can be tricky. Still, it’s better than Facebook for converting views into contracts.

Instagram

There’s a lot of temptation to advertise fitness products and get free junk on Instagram. I’ve done it a few times, but it was a huge time suck.

I capped out at around 14k subscribers on Instagram. Most of them wanted Tekken stuff. It was just too much effort. The 1-minute limit wasn’t enough to tell “cool, creative action stories” the way I do on YouTube.

Instagram is a good talent sourcing platform, but the top talent are at the tip top of the food chain. Good luck climbing that mountain.

I shut my Instagram account down. That sh*t is addictive.

LinkedIn

LI is great for tech, bad for stunts. You can post the best stunt reel or action choreography in the world on LinkedIn and it won’t go anywhere. But if you film yourself modeling a cube in 3D you’ll 50 contact requests from India.

(BTW: Here’s a quick, free way to get hired full-time at a game or movie studio next month. Go learn Unreal for a few weeks, make a 3D previz like this, and post it on LinkedIn. You’ll get hired. Filmmaking skills a plus.)

I don’t try to boost my LI followers with articles. My profile is for networking and getting contracts.

Bottom line: LinkedIn is a great way to generate contracts, but when it comes to entertainment, only techies need apply.

Blogging

Blogging every 6 months does nothing. Blogging regularly helps generate a steady audience. Posting something extremely important can launch you into the stratosphere. I posted once about how to author a Blu-Ray disc for an indie film and discovered I was the only blog on the planet to crack this issue. This single post translated into 5 contracts who all asked me to make their Blu-Ray BDCMFs, which came out to something like $3,000.

BTW thanks for reading this blog. I hope you’re subscribed!

Telegram

Telegram has a hierarchical channel feature. If you subscribe to my channel, you get my content unfiltered.

Try it out (you can even just view it in a browser): http://t.me/ericjacobus

Usually, by subscribing to a person’s channel you can look forward to a stream of unwanted rants and cat videos, but I promise I’ll keep things brand-relevant.

Final Thoughts

Branding is critical. If you build a brand that’s high in demand, you can expect to grow your audience.

If you just want to be culturally-relevant or topical, you’ll get tossed around like a rag doll, with the upside being a chance of being a viral sensation with a ton of ad revenue, or snagging a writing job for Vice.

How do you monetize your personal brand? There’s always ad revenue, sponsorships, or paid advertising. You could also direct ad traffic to a store to sell stuff. I had very little success doing this with Death Grip, Contour, and the other films we did and eventually shut our store down.

Or you turn your highest quality viewers into contracts – coordinating jobs, consulting, misc. production jobs, etc. Then you’re not worried about views and subs. Your #1 priority then is quality.

For this guy, I’m focusing on the blog and working on building my Telegram channel. So please subscribe to both!

While prepping an animated genre feature film like Lester, it’s a good idea to to study how these kinds of projects come and go.

Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise was an anime colossus released during the Manga Video heyday with amazing art and zero (almost) story. It was a movie made entirely by animators who prioritized world-building and created dozens of crazy set pieces, who then wrote the script as they went to make sense of it all. It would be like if 8711 made John Wick by shooting 5 action scenes without mentioning the dog. There’s a John Wick 2, 3, 4, and 5. There’s no Royal Space Force 2.

Royal Space Force is gorgeous. For ¥800M (~$8M USD) it better be. Apparently they raised the cash in a coordinated non-stop bullsh*t campaign at Bandai-Namco, who were probably impressed by the proof of concept. But in the end it nearly bankrupted the animation studio. Case in point: story first!

Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise, 1987

Rock & Rule (1983) was another massive film made by animators with incredible animation, great musical numbers and perfect casting.

The memorable set-pieces are connected with a story that can hardly be called that. The story involves the villain luring the heroes from their small hometown to his castle, kidnapping the girl, and taking her back to their small hometown. Story first!

The second and much bigger problem for Rock & Rule was MGM not knowing how to market an R-rated animation in the early 80s. It would’ve done okay today, but back then it grossed $35,000 of its $8M budget. You can watch it for free now.

Rock & Rule, 1983

And finally there are the ~$70M megatons like Titan A.E. (2000) with its studio issues and plot problems, resulting in only grossing half of its budget. But look at it.

Titan A.E., 2000

One of the greatest flops in history was Iron Giant (1999), another $70M megaton which had a solid story but probably was just too damned expensive.

Iron Giant, 1999

Higher budgets mean more intrusive oversight by studios, who will panic and make funny decisions to cut losses, like they did with Food Fight.

If you need to pay an army of people to animate for two years, then you need $70M to tell your story. If you only need to pay a small team of animators for a stylistic take on your project, you could do it for a tenth of that or less. The investors might not even care much about your story, and you’ll probably recoup their losses.

If your story is solid, and you have a cost-effective pipeline, there’s no end in sight.

EDIT: I’m also broadcasting on Telegram at t.me/ericjacobus where I dump more thoughts in smaller bites.

(I’m blogging more regularly as I prep an indie action-comedy animation I wrote called Lester. Most people think it’s too ambitious to do something like this, but they said that when I did Contour as well. So I’m blogging about it, hoping that more of you will try it out someday. Lester will be a mostly open-source process.)

I’ve written many feature film scripts. From the time I open Final Draft to exporting a version 1 pdf file, it often took me a year or two.

Writing 90 pages in Final Draft (or Celtx or whatever) is an organizational nightmare. I learned the hard way not to even open Final Draft until the very last minute.

And that’s how I managed to write the first draft of my action comedy Lester in 3 days.

When you build a house, you don’t start building after your first Home Depot run. First you source materials, get tools, cut wood, pay off the local mob, etc. All this is planning. The same goes for writing your script. Before you open Final Draft, you should have a lengthy pre-production process.

For Lester, I started with concept design.

  1. Who is the hero?
  2. What does he want in the beginning?
  3. What gets in his way?
  4. How does he resolve this?
  5. What does he want now?

#2 is where I found the vector of my concept. The hero’s desires might change as he undergoes some kind of conversion, but the driving force is the hero’s need to accomplish the mission.

Once I had a concept, I wrote a simple Save the Cat-style beat sheet. The description of each beat varies, but here’s the template I used for a simple 90-page action concept:

  1. Opening Image (page 1) – The world in disarray
  2. Theme (1-4) – Hero’s strengths
  3. Setup (1-9) – Who the hero really is
  4. Catalyst (10) – Hero changes course
  5. Debate (11-22) – Exploring the new world
  6. Break Into 2 (22) – Make a decision
  7. B Story (22-26) – Enter the new world
  8. Fun & Games (26-45) – Explore the new world (trailer stuff)
  9. Midpoint (45) – Something bad (or false hope)
  10. Bad Guys Close In (45-65) – Self-explanatory
  11. All Is Lost (65) – Someone dies
  12. Dark Night of the Soul (65-75) – Hero wishes he never did this
  13. Break Into 3 (75) – New plan
  14. Finale (75-90) – Execute new plan
  15. Closing Image (90) – The world is fixed

I kept each beat succinct without getting bogged down with details. For example, in Catalyst I wrote, “Lester takes a new job.” If the beats made sense, I expanded on them.

If the beats caused plot holes or pacing issues, I’d move them around. I originally crammed a ton of story into the setup: we meet Lester in the middle of a key relationship, and the Catalyst was “Lester gets unexpected news”. I moved this beat to the B Story so I could instead introduce Lester to this person for the viewer, which was much better paced.

The beat sheet is the testing lab. I’d often end up writing a dense, 12-page beat sheet, only to scrap it when it became bloated. Sometimes I’d lose track of what the whole point of the movie was and just start over from scratch to clear my head, a very clarifying process. I would always go back to What does the hero want? If I couldn’t answer that, I would start from scratch again.

The beats grew increasingly detailed as I became settled on Lester’s pacing. I turned it into an outline format, with roughly one chunk equaling one page. I’d include location details, dialog, and whatever else needed to color the world.

  • Setup
    1. Lester’s real life
      1. Lester teaches out of a strip mall
      2. Interaction with a local
      3. Bills to pay
    2. Lester’s secret life
      1. They’re running a secret lair here
      2. Lester’s mentor helps out
    3. Lester’s mentor
      1. Helps Lester be the best he can be
        1. Mentor, “Lester, great job.”
        2. Lester, “Lot of good it’s doing us, check out these bills.”
        3. Mentor, “Forget the bills, we’re doing good things.”
        4. Lester, “Then we need to get better at it.”
      2. Lester shows Mentor the numbers
    4. Theme restated
      1. Mentor reminds Lester why they do this
      2. Lester puts his headphones in, he’s heard this song and dance before

I spent a year on Lester‘s beat sheet. A year. That’s what it took for this story to make sense.

But Eric, why not just spend a year in Final Draft?

Because fixing your beats in Final Draft is like pouring a slab after tiling your roof. It’s terrible planning. It’s the opposite of planning actually. Final Draft is not a planning tool. It’s for finishing. Do not plan anything in Final Draft.

Writing in Final Draft also gives a false sense of finality. You start feeling like, “This is the one!” Most likely it’s not and you’re going to throw it away.

By the way, a year in Final Draft is nothing. In fact, I bet you’ve got at least one unfinished script in Final Draft that’s 3 years old. Or 10 years old. We all have those. If I can make a very gentle recommendation, close Final Draft, and start over with a beat sheet. Limit your time in Final Draft as much as possible.

If you want to make clear, coherent beats, do not open Final Draft. Write in Notepad++ or Open Office, or use paper and pen. Find a good note-taking device for when you’re driving or walking around. I’ve tried Post-it notes and 3×5 cards and found they were too hard to track, but your results may differ. You can chisel rock if you want, just don’t go to Final Draft yet.

In the end I wrote a 30-page beat sheet with nearly-final dialog. Editing dialog within the beat sheet is easy too. It’s easier to gauge flow and write more freely. Concepts can be grouped so we don’t rehash the same point over and over.

With a final beat sheet in hand, I copied one chunk at a time, pasted it into Final Draft, and formatted it. After tweaking dialog, fleshing out action scenes, and pacing it properly, I had a 90-page script after 3 days.

C’mon, man, I thought you came up with your story in 3 days in Final Draft, you click-baiter. Ah, you’ve missed the point.

The purpose is to make a workable first draft in Final Draft and get feedback. Working through your beats to create a first draft is painful and torturous inside Final Draft, but outside of Final Draft, it’s fun and energizing. Use whatever technique you need when building your beat sheet, EXCEPT FINAL DRAFT.

Send your script out for review. I used (and recommend) getting script coverage from Script Reader Pro. Pay them to rip it apart. The feedback will hurt. Your pacing will be bad, you won’t be able to answer basic questions like, “What is your hero trying to do in Act 2?” and stuff won’t tie together at the end. That’s a small sampling of the issues with my first draft.

They also send you a report card.

After receiving coverage for Lester draft 1, I spent a few weeks in Notepad++ and Open Office tackling the 86 problems they listed. Fixing these problems required a page 1 rewrite.

Fortunately, I did not spent 3 years in Final Draft. I only spent 3 days there. A page oner would be easy. And it was.

I rewrote the beat sheet from scratch. This meant moving beats around for better pacing, changing the villain, removing one of my favorite action scenes and writing an entirely different finale. The entire location of the movie was more centralized, which was an opportunity to build a more coherent world that Lester lived in.

I also took some time to get inspired by some classics like Rock & Rule and uncover old gems like Looker. Watching movies with your coverage notes in mind can drastically change your beat sheet, even your concept, for the better.

After another month, I wrote the second draft of Lester in 4 days and sent that off for coverage, and received 10. 2 more weeks in Notepad++, another page 1 rewrite (a 90% rewrite anyway) and we had a pretty nice draft 3.

Stay away from Final Draft until you have a massive, overly detailed beat sheet, and then bang that thing out in 3 days. You might enjoy writing your story again this way.

I like action films. I like them so much that I make them. My career started out mostly making action comedies. Then I turned 30, had to pay bills, etc, so I made a depressing one called Death Grip. Comments about the film were usually along the lines of, “I wanted more toilet humor.” I was a a typical California State art graduate when I made Death Grip: a combination of depressed, narcissistic, nihilistic, coffee, and a paleo diet. Film school did teach me not to make typical Hollywood genre trash, so Death Grip was that.

Later on in 2014 my mentor Clayton Barber helped me find my stride again and we made the action comedy series Rope A Dope together, and later he directed Blindsided: The Game. It was obvious that I was an action comedy guy, so I was gonna stick to what I knew. I resigned from making angry action hero movies, leaving that to the pros.

This was also when I met my wife, started a family, joined a men’s group, renewed my faith, got over a handful of addictions, and grew a big beard. I did cool jobs around the world, and I’d bring my bags to the last day of the shoot and hop on a plane after our martini shot. I’d stick around and see the sights, but I had a family at home to get back to.

Naturally an optimistic, homeward guy seeks optimistic, homeward action heroes, the kinds who fight to defend things like sacredness of old treasure or saving a family. Finding these usually ends up with a trip to the 80s watering hole. Because damned if the market isn’t flooded with miserable action heroes starting from the 2000s.

Today’s action heroes aren’t funny. There seems to be a thick wall between comedy and action.

I’ll admit it. Watching an action hero level an entire building of villains satisfies a base itch within all of us. That itch burns like a mother when mindless mobs on the news and social media loom over your own home and family. When you have the best action team on the planet designing the set pieces, they deliver. They’ve perfected it.

Now, everyone wants to write the next Bourne or Wick. So they write a purely reactive hero, cast a big name, train him to hold a rifle like a T-rex, and you’ve got yet another miserable action film.

The pissed off hero formula is pure reaction. Reaction to evil is fun and satisfying. It gets the job done. But just how many reaction heroes do we need? Two or three? How about 25 per year ever since 9/11? Somebody, or something, has been busily churning out reaction heroes, which are usually just byproducts of evil villains. The formula is simple:

I. Catalyst: Villain destroys hero’s family (or eliminates what remains of it, i.e. a cute dog, photo, etc.)
II. Setup: Hero has nothing to live for
III. Fun & Games: Hero reacts and breaks skulls (note: hire a creative action team to find interesting way to break skulls)
IV. Closing Image: Family is restored… just kidding! Actually it’s: hero comes to terms to his new awful existence, meets other miserable characters, etc. (Netflix series!)

After IV it’ll be tough to do a series or trilogy if the hero’s back with a family again. The Taken sequels were good examples of how to resolve this in theory, but for some reason they didn’t get the same love as the original. Scripts where the hero’s family is wiped out seem to acquire better creative talent.

You’re really beating this family thing over the head, Eric. Yeah… Nothing screams “30-45 male demo” like retired serviceman protects family. But family is just a symbol in this case. The real prize is “something good”. And “good” can’t just be “revenge”. The villain is blocking the good. Kill him, move him, turn him into a monk, whatever it takes to get the “good thing”.

Jean Paul Belmondo is one of the greatest action comedy stars of all time. He’s the French Jackie Chan, the pinnacle of our optimistic action hero: witty, cool moves, and has a plan. He wants “something good”. The villain is in the way.

Le Magnifique, 1973

While working through Belmondo’s filmography, three that come to are That Man from Rio, Le Magnifique, and Le Marginal. These action comedies rival anything Canon put out in the 80s. How this guy didn’t cross our yankee radars is still beyond me. I guess Criterion does has a pretty thick filter.

Belmondo is an action hero with agency. An agentic hero has a plan before the villain enters scene, and the villain is just a barrier. He’s got momentum that the reactive hero seems to be missing.

When the credits roll after our reactive hero finishes the job, we still hope something comes of him. Maybe his dog will learn to get him a beer, or he can build that shed in his back yard. Netflix series!

When we watch Belmondo, we’re on the edge of our seats, not because of the interesting ways he kills his enemies, but because he’s got a plan that started long ago. We’re just trying to catch up with him.

Again, I must stress: pissed off, vengeful action heroes are cool! If there’s a problem, he fixes it. Or she! She might be a raging alcoholic but she can kill nazis with the best of em. Our reactive heroes have cool moves and weapons, and they popularized facial hair. Yay for these guys and ladies.

But that’s not my genre. I’m here to talk about action comedy.

Comedy – An Ancient Institution

But isn’t comedy reactive? Isn’t it funny when someone reacts in a funny way to something?

What is comedy? The simplest joke is the combination of two ideas, never combined before, that result in a logical connection. Writing a good joke requires getting out of the cultural gutter and surveying everything at face value. When you’re at your most misanthropic, the best jokes (and most logical connections) come like a torrent.

Who were the most misanthropic characters in history? Maybe they were the court jesters. Their job looked easy, because being a comedian always looks easy. But being a court jester required getting killed every day, and waking up to do it again.

C’mon, Eric. We don’t kill comedians.

This is not a victimary blog. I will not be caught on record saying that we got a kick out of Chris Farley’s self-destructive behavior. That’s not the purpose here. We can admit that people are funny, and they were victims of the system. He was outrageously funny, and drugs are bad. The audience loves their drug-addicted stars no matter whether they’re comedians or thespians. Untimely death is bad no matter what.

But the comedian is different in one crucial way. The very nature of the role requires that the comedian sets himself to be the fall guy. Laughter expels.

Scapegoating is as old as dirt, and today it’s no less so than it was then. Target our common enemy, throw him off the cliff. Cancel him! Democracy wins! Enjoy the unity of getting rid of the problematic guy.

When humans sacrifice a goat, the catharsis of unity might last weeks or months. When the sacrifice is human, an entire generation. The closer the sacrifice, the bigger the area of effect. Admittedly, this kept the Mayans pretty peaceful (and advanced!), but these time spans are a blink of the eye in the grand scheme of things. How do you keep the scapegoat machine running for centuries, or millennia?

Back in the day you’d just round up some witches. We still can. Just don’t call em witches.

But dead bodies still tell stories, especially with science. Did our god really turn into a falcon and take away our sins? Or did you guys just push a guy off a cliff? The scapegoat mechanism hangs by a thread these days.

And yet we’re humans, so we need sacrifice. Everyone in your dusty anthropology books agrees with me. So a better question is: how do you sacrifice and hide the bodies?

Turns out some guy figured it out. He put on a funny hat, bore the brunt of the jokes, and promised to come back the next day to do it again. He enjoyed lifelong employment in the kingdom because everyone could unify around this dope every day.

A comedian is a sustainable scapegoat. Comedy requires fewer bodies. Fewer.

Being a court jester was still risky. One day the crowd might gang up on the guy and cut his head off. Time to hire another court jester, and tell him the last one retired with a nice severance package.

So further down the line, we entrusted a straight man to deal regular blows for us. The double act was a more sustainable innovation because it removed the mob from the equation. We could sit back and just be one with the straight man.

Finally, solo comedians came around and eliminated the bloody footprint entirely. The likes of Seinfeld, Larry David, Charlie Chaplin, and Jackie Chan seemed to know this intuitively. As the audience, we think they’re the butt of the joke. And then they turn the mirror on us and show us the innocent human behind the scapegoat. It could be you someday. So you cheer for Chaplin because it sucks being a scapegoat.

Comedy is Non-reactive

Comedic geniuses don’t react. They judge how you will react, and then they do something that’s not as cliche as your run-of-the-mill reaction. They anticipated your reaction a long time ago.

This is why agentic action heroes are funny by nature. They see the forest from the trees, and our dumb asses just try to keep up. An agentic action hero is the star of an action comedy.

Making action comedy is not easy. You need someone physically gifted and funny, and finding both is like finding where the north and south poles meet.

Studios once knew how to make action comedies, but that was then. We’re in a different era now.

The Pink Panther (2006), proof that you could make a better action comedy using Fiverr

Action is hard. Comedy is harder. But action-comedy isn’t even really an option in the live action world anymore unless you’re Dwayne Johnson. It requires a vertically integrated production that the likes of Jackie, Chaplin, Seinfeld, and The Rock can shift around in order to ensure a continuity of vision. A horizontal, “assembly line”-style production can’t make a good action comedy. It can do a sitcom, and it can make a revenge thriller, but not an action comedy.

This is an issue of scale. When a studio grows, they hire specialists, who help produce the product in bulk. This usually helps. Let’s take Buster Keaton as an example. Specialists at the studio ensure that schedules are kept, the army’s wardrobe is accurate, and the catering is warm. He shouldn’t have to worry about these things.

But Keaton had a particular brand. Behind most Keaton gags was some feat of engineering. Keaton’s brand required very innovative set design.

Laugh out loud at Buster Keaton's “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” - The  Virginian-Pilot - The Virginian-Pilot

Then one day, Don’t worry Mr. Keaton, we have hired somebody to build your sets for you now. Just do you.

The Pink Panther remakes are crap because the the directing, editing, soundtrack, and everything else are all contract jobs masked as employment. Getting these departments all on the same page with the comedy requires a dictator, and dictatorships don’t scale at studios, unless it’s his own studio. Without this vertical integration of departments, comedy stops being a key offering, though it can sometimes become a byproduct.

Traditional studios can’t make action comedies. Comedians make comedy, and action heroes destroy. The two departments don’t communicate much. Unless you’re The Rock.

New studios like Pixar do understand action comedies. In 3D, this stuff is second nature. Animators understand action and comedy because their job is making characters with agency.

The animation process is also well attuned for making action comedy. In animation you can be designing a set, animating your hero, adding particle effects and doing sound design and music all at the same time. It’s vertically integrated, happening simultaneously like an old theater production.

How to Make an Action Comedy (Today)

A little background. Back in 2018 I bought a cost-effective motion capture system and used it to do motion capture stunts for game companies. To make our demo reel, I make some animated shorts in Unreal and Unity on zero budget. My buddy Pete Lee noticed and said, “You could make a John Wick with Jeff Goldblum if you did that.”

Imagine that! A comedic John Wick!

Jeff Goldblum | Tumblr | Gentleman style, Style, White tux

I had learned how to make motion capture movies through osmosis during my stint on God of War. The motion capture actors in God of War don’t do their own fight scenes because you’re not allowed to even sneeze when doing performance capture (“p-cap”) with a facial rig.

The process of shooting a p-cap action scene is therefore:
1. Record your actors doing voice over (and optionally facial capture).
2. Edit the audio into a “radio play”.
3. Hire stunt performers to “dub” the action over the radio play.
4. Put the face, voice, and body together.

On the day, they send us stunt performers a script, we suit up and choreograph a scene based on the script, and then we perform the scene to the “radio play” which they broadcast over the speakers. It’s the reverse of traditional film dubbing.

All this is to say: The lead actor in an animated film never has to throw a single punch, and you don’t have to compromise your visual style to hide a stunt double.

So I made some short films to test the process out. We didn’t have the capability to do facial capture, or even finger capture at the time, but I knew that layering these things together should be a simple process once we got that tech sorted out. The important part was testing whether we could make a narrative for zero budget, and the results weren’t half-bad. As I write this I’m finishing up a much more polished Unreal short we shot with Matt Workman. More on that in a later post.

A Better Hero

Our action hero plays head games and tilts the scales in his favor. He’s the Rocky Balboa, the Conor McGregor who always has a comeback line. He’s assertive and pushes the conversation where he needs it to go, rather than just answering questions. He fights evil and restores order in a fallen world. He’s optimistic and energetic because he has a plan. And he’s funny, because nobody else knows how to crack a joke when shit falls apart.

It Was All Nates Blood on Me"- Conor McGregor Takes Another Jab at Nate  Diaz - EssentiallySports

It’s time to start making one of these things.

Before we start, here’s Kung Fu vs. Zombies for your viewing pleasure.

The premise behind our short Kung Fu vs. Zombies was simple – pay homage to the iconic alley fight scene from Big Trouble In Little China.

Inspiration for Kung Fu vs. Zombies
John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China (1986) – Chang Sing vs. Wing Kong

(If you haven’t seen Big Trouble In Little China yet, please do. You’ll thank me later. It’s on Amazon for a dollar as I write this.)

When watching the clip above (there’s no spoiler in it, don’t worry), there are about 20 different fights happening at once. The fights that we focus on are in the foreground, but there’s a lot happening in the background that fills the scene out beautifully. We’re not supposed to focus on the background fights… but I can’t help myself. They’re hilarious.

Check out the fight in the background
Choreographer: “Alright everyone, even though you’ll be in the background, I want your fight scene to be intense and fast-paced.”
Stuntman with the hatchet: “Whatever, man, nobody’s gonna be watching us.”

Still, anyone who saw this scene ages ago was blown away by the amount of action happening on the screen. We wanted to make that. This would require building a set, hiring 50 martial artists, and shooting for 3-5 days with a crew of 30. Total budget: $100,000 USD on the low end.

Or, we could motion capture the entire thing with TWO martial artists and a crew of THREE. We could get an awesome location on the Unity asset store for $50, buy a couple character assets, and shoot the entire thing in two days in a motion capture volume. Our version would have a twist: the kung fu heroes fight against a zombie invasion in Chinatown. We could even bring in a dragon and a giant zombie that we could climb on. To make it a true homage, include a Jack Burton walk-on at the end.

When we started motion capturing Kung Fu vs. Zombies (KvZ) we didn’t even have a location in mind. We just knew it had to be a Chinatown alley. I’d deal with that later. I had Dennis for a day, so we just started shooting.

We started with the lineup, an iconic Western-style standoff that kicks off the scene. We did 16 or so takes for both sides, including the run up. We only had enough run distance to get a total of 2 steady run cycles, but this is enough when bringing it into post.

Kung Fu vs. Zombies mocap shoot

We then shot a ton of fight scenes. Dennis and I have worked together for over 15 years. Ever since Contour, we’ve figured out how to move together so easily that we can complete each other’s (physical) sentences. Choreography isn’t even really a process. We just move around and it becomes fight choreography. Sometimes I’d be the zombie, other times he’d be the zombie.

Eric and Dennis motion capturing the action in Kung Fu vs. Zombies

The goal, again, was to shoot everything the way John Carpenter did. I’d put every fight scene happening consecutively in the same location and just shoot vignettes, so the entire location would be chock full of action constantly. All the background action is just a repetition of what you see in the vignettes, but the audience is engaged, so they’re only watching the foreground stuff.

Some of these fight scenes were shorter than others. This would become a problem later on.

We then shot the giant zombie scene. This is the tentpole of the whole piece, the “Bad Guys Close In” segment to use Save the Cat terminology. Dennis acted out some basic navigation. We simulated the giant zombie eating one of the characters, which was just me sitting on a barstool, and also did some ladder climbs so we could have some characters climb the giant zombie leg.

Lastly we shot our Jack Burton footage outside. The Xsens system works off a router, as there are no cameras. I went out of range but that didn’t matter, since the suit buffers all the capture and loads it onto the computer once you go back within range.

Post-Production

For post, I decided on Unity because it allowed me to quickly drop the motion capture files in, put them on the free 3D models, and not really have to mess with anything. Plus I had already tinkered a fair amount in Cinemachine in our previous 3Viz video.

When I lined everyone up in Unity, I looped the run-up animations at the crossing of the feet so that it would blend relatively smoothly. You have to tinker with the motion settings so they don’t go off at an angle, but when doing this, I could have them run forever.

A short run cycle for each character that’s repeated so our characters can cover any space we put them in

I used the original Big Trouble in Little China scene as reference and shot it essentially the same way using Cinemachine. All the shots were done manually with keyframes.

I went with these low-polygon heroes at first because they were free, plus I thought it was a cool throwback. But when we released our first and second dev diaries, people commented on the low quality assets compared to the more realistic zombie assets. In the end we purchased some higher quality character packs from the Unity asset store for $12.

Another asset that we needed before making much progress was the location itself. I bought this Chinatown scene for $25 from the asset store and spent many hours tweaking the lighting and environment to get it to look cinematic.

Then I had to fit everyone into the alley. This was redundant work because I had already positioned everybody on the blank white background. Had I started with this set, I would have been done much faster.

Yet more lighting tweaks. You really have to put an arbitrary limit on things like lighting, or else you’ll tweak it forever.

Note: I added a 24-frame pre-roll before my animations started. This allows the lighting to “kick in”. Otherwise, the first second of animation would have various lights clicking on for whatever reason. There might be a toggle switch for this somewhere in Unity but I didn’t find it.

Special thanks to Adam Myhill for the cinematic tips like adding fog and some Cinemachine filters.

What I noticed right away too was the sheer amount of swaying and unnecessary movement from the heroes. The Wing Kong and the Chang Sing were almost perfectly still, but our guys were shuffling around like we all had to pee. And I had tried deliberately to reduce this movement during motion capture, because there’s a tendency for mocap actors to add way too much unnecessary movement (neck kinks, shoulder twists, lots of nervous footsteps in place, random weight shifts, none of which is natural). Still, old habits die hard. I slowed a bunch of these down to 0.5 speed to resolve this.

After ensuring that no characters were clipping through one another or through the surrounding scenery, the lighting looked good enough, the seams in the ground weren’t too obvious (which could be resolved by raising the range and decreasing the intensity of the corresponding light source, a task that became increasingly more complex as more lights were added), I shot this scene with Cinemachine and released it as dev diary episode 2.

Since I was dealing with so many characters, each shot required lots of cheating and shifting of characters and it took many hours more than necessary to shoot this part. If I had to do it again, I could bang this scene out in an hour or two. With an actual Vcam (like Dragonfly, which we used in Cabin Fever) it might take 20 minutes.

Every camera angle was exported using the Unity Recorder package add-in, something you can add to your project for free (make sure you select “Show Preview Packages” in your package manager window). I only exported mp4 files, which are relatively low quality in Unity Recorder, even when the quality is set to “high”. Adding an image sequence export option would have concurrently exported a PNG sequence, which could have been stitched together into a beautiful 422 ProRes file in Media Encoder, something I didn’t do until the next scene.

Movie export settings in Unity Recorder
Image sequence export settings in Unity Recorder

Another mistake I made in this scene was failing to make a proper hierarchy for my vcam assets. All the cinemachine vcams were in the root hierarchy, which was messy, but I was more concerned with just pumping shots out and getting the thing done. I assumed I could rearrange these after shooting everything, and so after I was done I stuck all the vcam shots into an empty “Virtual Cameras” object. But suddenly Cinemachine didn’t know where these vcams were located anymore, even when I re-linked them in the animation window. I would have to move them BACK OUT to the main hierarchy for the Cinemachine angles to function properly again. Still, not wanting to hamper my progress, I just tucked them away somewhere and moved on.

We felt pretty good about our dev diary. Then someone mentioned that the low-polygon heroes looked cheap, especially compared to their sleek, sinewy zombie opponents. So I paid $12 for two packs: PBR Fighters and this Ninja Pack. I spent a day or two re-fitting all the characters with their new, high-poly skins. For $12 I went from Virtua Fighter 1 graphics to PS3-PS4 quality.

Swapping high-poly characters for older low-poly characters

Kung Fu Fighting

With the lineup done and shot, it was time to move on to the fighting. My plan was to animate every fight scene as a single animation strip and layer them on top of one another and place them in various places throughout the scene. The question then became: how do I do a new timeline with all this stuff already in the scene?

I probably went about it all wrong, but it still worked. I basically duplicated all my characters and made one folder for “Fight Scenes”, where each Kung Fu vs. Zombie fight would happen, along with their associated weapons and props and effects, and one folder for “Vcams” with their camera angles.

Since each character had a parent object that could be moved about freely, I could mess with distancing whenever necessary. So when Dennis throws a kick at my stomach, we could do it from 2 feet away and I’d put a keyframe there to move the characters close together. When I grab him immediately after, I keyframe that spot and reposition the characters. It works flawlessly, save for a bit of foot sliding (which you could tweak in MotionBuilder), but the camera rarely looks at the feet. This is the benefit of havirng control of your camera and style. You don’t have to worry about making everything look perfect: just shoot the stuff that looks good and cheat the rest.

Fudging character distance in the Unity timeline

Lots of the fights had swords. We should have done prop capture, which would have made for less work and more realistic looking weapon animation. Instead I had to hand-key all the weapons, though parenting the weapon to the characters’ hands makes this relatively painless.

Some fight scenes were shorter than others. If a background fight suddenly ended, the characters would vanish. I’d catch this most of the time, but sometimes there’d be a distant fight scene with a disappearing kung fu fighter that I didn’t catch until much later into production.

To resolve this, I would go into the vcam animation track group and add an “Activation Track” for the background fight in question and make sure that it was deactivated on a camera cut. Some fights mysteriously disappear between shots, but at least it’s not mid-take, and nobody will notice this stuff.

Activating and deactivating characters per virtual camera in Unity’s Cinemachine

Vcamming all the fights was fun. Shooting and editing is where you can make action really sing. We had all these shots and edits basically planned in our heads as we were motion capturing them, so this part went smoothly.

We don’t shoot coverage-style, which would mean shooting the entire fight from multiple angles and then editing it together later. This shooting-editing style tends to come off as unintentional, but we wanted every shot to have a definite meaning, like a proper kung fu film. We pop off particular shots for particular action, even if that means doing 1 move in a camera setup. This was the Sammo Hung style, which negates the need to repeat action over and over and risk injury. Sammo’s impact-heavy style meant that stuntmen would be subject to wear and tear, so he’d pop off a couple takes of only that action, call it good, and never do that action again. I call this performer-economy since it doesn’t exhaust the performers.

Performer-economy shooting style, with zero coverage
From Sammo Hung’s Pantyhose Hero

In 3D, we’re tempted to over-shoot because it’s free to keep popping off angles. There’s also the perverse incentive of repeating choreography in different angles and attempting to sell it as different action, but we believe in disciplined shooting and maintained this same performer-economy style. In keeping with a rhythm Dennis and I have developed over the years, we would typically do 3-5 camera setups per action vignette, for a total of about 120 vcam shots for the mass-fight scene.

The entire short has the same motion blur. I shoot my live-action fights with a 1/50 or 1/60 shutter, or 1/120 if there are weapons involved (though for this short I never changed it). Strobe-y fight scenes shot with a 1/500 shutter are visually strange. This trend took off after Gladiator, where it was used to effect with the weapons and cool production value, but for some reason cinematographers and directors decided every fist fight needed to also look like Gladiator. The naked eye has a natural motion blur that registers movement to the brain. If your fight has a strobe-like quality, the brain might register the images, but without motion blur, the viewer requires more processing power to string these images together and process the fight scene.

Strobe-y fight scene from Fast & Furious 7 (2015)

Another issue with a strobe-like effect in a fight scene is that contact lines get compromised. A punch across the face shot at 1/50 shutter creates a pleasant motion blur, which allows the performer 2-3 frames of leeway to react in time. But at 1/250 or 1/500 shutter, the punch will be on one side of the face, then the other side of the face, with no blur. The audience will wonder why the impact is off, and it’s because there was never any contact.

So, I applied the Cinemachine motion blur filter to the global camera profile so it would never change.

I had the option of vcamming everything with the Dragonfly vcam, but unlike in Unreal’s Sequencer, there was no obvious way to edit these vcam shots in Cinemachine. Dragonfly works much better in Unreal. There’s also the Expozure vcam system, which is super high-grade, but we weren’t ready to transition by the time we started working with that one. We’ll use Expozure for the next short.

I should have put the vcams in the same folder as the fights themselves, because then if I moved the fight, the cameras would move with them. Instead, whenever I moved a fight, I’d have to move the cameras independently as well, which messed up all my shots.

Benefit of having vcam shots in the same folder as the corresponding action

Some ideas had to be thrown out, such as some bone breaks, which would have required some MotionBuilder work, as well as dismemberment, which would mean editing the 3D model in Blender or some other 3D tool to show the cross-section of the removed limb. The choreography never really called for this, and it was too technical for me. Maybe next time.

Next time, we will do finger capture. This would have been a huge help to the animations, and as it is we only did minimal finger adjustments for the “Hung Gar hands” portions, another nod to Big Trouble In Little China.

Paying homage to the Chang Sing hand signal (“Hung Gar hand”)
Big Trouble in Little China 1986

After an internal viewing, the Sumo stuff stole the show, so we added some shots for him on a pickup day. We also added a comedy bit with the red ninja’s shuriken (Dennis’s idea) and the rhinoceros smashing a zombie into a sign. This was accomplished with a series of 3 animations blended together.

Zombie Giant

In theory, adding a giant to your scene is pretty simple. Just mocap your actor, compensate for his size (maybe 10 meters translates to 50 meters in the 3D scene), and slow him down a bit. We fit the giant zombie into the scene without much of an issue, but I realized that he’d collide with all the Chinese lanterns I’d hung in the scene. I tried to animate them so they’d fall down, but it looked crummy. So, like any good filmmaker, I just cut away and added off-camera effects.

We barely had enough of a “scared run” cycle, and only 4 of them at that. We should have captured 16 of them, and tripled their length. So whatever you see is all that there was. You’ll see some characters begin to stop, but I tried to cut away to avoid showing this.

Climbing up the giant zombie legs was relatively simple. I parented the ladder climb animations to the zombie leg and compensated for the pant leg depth. In the end it looks okay. It would have been even better to animate the heroes’ legs dangling more and swaying with the motion of the walk cycle, but for a cheap edit job this worked pretty well.

Parenting a character animation to another character’s leg, with keyframe editing on the transform properties

We planned for a dragon to enter the scene and didn’t think much more of it. It turned out to be pretty simple, as the dragon cost us $15 on the Unity store. There was a built-in effect for the fire, but I couldn’t get it to work, so I had to build my own using the particle generator. I also parented a similar fire effect to the giant zombie’s head for when he goes down to the ground.

Using Unity’s particle emitter to create a dragon flame

After spending a bit of time learning particle systems, I figured I’d try my hand at making blood effects too. This turned out to be a huge ordeal. I tried purchasing two blood asset packages, neither of which worked. There was no clear-cut tutorial on making a blood particle system. So I tweaked and tweaked, probably for a total of 10-16 hours, until something looked acceptable. Even then, the blood has no collision properties and falls through the floor, so this would have to be (again) hidden with camera and editing.

Using Unity’s particle system to create blood effects

Still, once the blood was made, it was easy to replicate it everywhere. I could easily make splatters for the Sumo attacks, and by parenting a blood particle system to a character, it will follow them around. These really add to the scene and I’m happy I invested the hours.

For the final Jack Burton cameo, I didn’t consider the fact that we’d actually have to find a character that resembled Jack from Big Trouble In Little China. And it turns out there’s nothing out there, nothing even close. Also, creating the iconic Jack Burton tanktop was way beyond my pay grade, so I used Adobe Fuse to build a Jack wearing his simpler cream-colored poncho in the beginning of the film.

Jack Burton created in Adobe Fuse and the $5 truck from the Unity store
Jack Burton, late to the party as usual

Getting your Fuse animation into Unity isn’t a simple task. First I exported it to Mixamo, which generates the rig. However, this skeleton isn’t prepared to run the Xsens mocap animations we had. Our MotionBuilder tech Mike Foster rigged it up in MoBu and made it ready to go. Still, importing the character into Unity results, for some reason, in the textures being set to transparent. So I had to extract the textures and reapply them to all the body elements. Then we had Jack.

I spent about 2 days on sound design. I have a very fast process for doing sound that I developed when doing previz on Heart of a Champion where I can bang out sound designs really quickly. It involves a lot of hotkeys and organization techniques. I’ll write a separate post about that someday. I also nested each character’s sound effect group and created sequences from those and dropped them in as background sound whenever I wanted to fill in some ambient fight sounds.

Sound design and mix done in Adobe Premiere

Mark R. Johnson handled all the titles. We went with the Carpenter style for both the intro and final credits using the Albertus font. And JP Franco created our thumbnail.

Final Takeaways

I learned about 6,482 things doing Kung Fu vs. Zombies, but here they are narrowed down to a top-8 list:

  1. You can make crowds really quickly using motion capture.
  2. Unity assets are cheap and they have everything you could ever want on the asset store.
  3. Cinemachine looks great but takes time compared to using DragonFly iPad-based vcam. (Unreal’s Sequencer takes arguably as much time as Cinemachine.)
  4. Making a single blood particle system is hard, but once you invest in making it look right, you might as well use it everywhere.
  5. If Unity had nested timelines like Sequencer, it would be a far more competitive filmmaking tool.
  6. Organize your vcams carefully when using Cinemachine. If they’re intended to move around with the action, parent them under the same object. Do not start editing your vcams until your hierarchy is set!
  7. Adobe Fuse is a powerful tool for making quick character models, but you’ll need to tweak it in MotionBuilder before it’s ready for an Xsens mocap animation.
  8. When exporting using Unity Recorder, if you’re exporting a clip that starts 2 minutes into the sequence, Recorder renders everything, rather than just skipping to that 2-minute mark. Recorder is solid, except for this one issue.
  9. All the cool people have seen Big Trouble In Little China. Have you?

    and finally…
  10. Learning that we could make a full-blown action movie using nothing but some motion capture suits and a Unity scene changed how I see filmmaking. This kind of movie would have been impossible 10 years ago, but as storytellers we have all the tools we could ever want to make whatever we want. I look forward to seeing how Unity, Unreal, and Maya get utilized by the indie filmmaking world, because today, there’s no longer a barrier to entry to telling a story. Just learn the tool and start making stuff.

Many thanks to the people who have kept watching our projects over the years. We believe the action of Kung Fu vs. Zombies and the ease of creating it is a sign of things to come.