One of the perennial struggles that I seem to have when it comes to feature films is that they often lose my interest well before the climax, or even the third act. The only difference that truly defines films are their length; everything else is relative, and animated films are no exception. However, there’s a simple trick to making a really great film, and all it involves, is listening to a song.
Films are a journey. They have a beginning, an end, with a story in between. How that story and the characters are told, related, and portrayed is paramount to the success of the film and how it is perceived by the audience. A great film will do a good job of all that, but even more so, it will keep the audience engaged and anticipating the climax.
Guardians of the Galaxy is not one of those films. Watching over Christmas, I ducked out after 20 minutes having surmised the problem and premise of the film. Returning for the pre-climax pep talk, it was if I hadn’t missed a thing. I did not anticipate the climax so much as predict it.
Almost any major film is the same these days. Oh sure, there are a few twists thrown in for good measure, but if Frozen is any example, they can be reduced to a mere device designed to fool the audience. Great films never fool the audience; they suggest, hint, imply, anything short of revealing the truth until the last minute.
Every film is about solving a problem. A character or characters encounter a problem, and must solve it before the end. The problem can be in any form but does depend on the genre. Snow White is going to be killed by an evil queen; Aladdin is lonely (and poor), Shrek wants to be loved but want to be left alone because he believes he is ugly, etc. etc.
Fortunately, constructing a great film that solves the proverbial problem is not as hard as it looks, provided you use the song ‘Insomnia’ by the British dance band ‘Faithless’ as a guide. Don’t believe me? Read on.
First though, listen to the song in its original form. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like dance music, just listen:
Now lets analyse it!
The bells and ticking clocks give the context to the scenario away immediately, even before singer Maxi Jazz clearly defines the problem: he can’t get any sleep.
In a film, things don’t have to be this blunt, but the problem faced by the character(s) should be presented as soon as possible. Personally, I like opening sequences as a way of framing the context for the film. The problem itself can come later, but at least the audience is primed for what to expect. Think of Monsters Inc. and the fun 2-D opening that clearly demonstrated that the monsters would not be inherently evil.
The beat that will define the rest of the song kicks in and sets the tempo for what it to come. It forms the foundation for building everything else to come later on.
The beat, or rhythm, or tempo of a film should be consistent throughout and shouldn’t be confused with the pace of the film; that can be changed without altering the overall tempo. The introduction of the beat signals the real start of the film and the journey to the climax. The small talk has ended and the characters are making an earnest effort towards confronting their problem.
For example, in Hercules, this is when the eponymous hero leaves home to begin his training with Phil.
More complexity is added. Additional instruments add depth and variety to the melody all the while maintaining the same beat and tempo.
If we use the Wizard of Oz as an example, this is where Dorothy would be travelling along the Yellow Brick Road and encountering the additional characters of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Lion. In Spirited Away, it is where Chihiro meets the other bathhouse workers. In the Secret of Kells, it is when Brendan meets Brother Aidan and learns of the Book of Iona.
Here the problem is subtlety reinforced. It isn’t in your face, but serves as a reminder that the singer remains awake when he’d rather be asleep. The solution remains elusive, but the search continues.
You’ve seen this a hundred times in films when the villain confronts the heroes well in advance of the climax, either in person or by proxy. The purpose isn’t to confront, but rather to remind everyone of the overarching problem, and the continuing search for a solution.
This is when Bob first meets the Omnidroid in the Incredibles and reminds him that he is desperately out of shape and under-appreciated at home.
This point would usually serve as the end of the first act.
There is a change in tone. The unease of the problem is now more apparent and explicit. The listener is now presented with the undesirable effects of insomnia; the uncertainty, the depression, the painful inability to effectively combat it.
This is the point where the audience should be made to feel the full force of the characters problem. The character’s dilemma should be the audience’s dilemma too. The outcome at this point should be completely uncertain in the minds of the viewer.
In the Secret of Kells, this is the scene showing the full destruction that the Vikings cause and how helpless people are to stop them. If they were killed and their village destroyed, what hope is there for the inhabitants of Kells. In Toy Story, it is when Woody and Buzz are acquired by Sid from the claw machine. We already know that no toy escapes from Sid’s house; what fate awaits our heroes?
The beat returns, but is different than before. Not overwhelmingly so, but enough to differentiate it from what came earlier.
This is an important point. The return of the beat reaffirms the journey towards the climax, but the fact that it is different than before should indicate a degree of growth in the characters. Consider Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon and how the ‘beat’ of the film changes when he discovers that the dragons themselves are not the true enemy of his village; the queen dragon controlling the nest is.
Complexity in the melody begins to build again.
This is the buildup in the second act. By now the characters are firmly and convincingly on the road to the climax, but with a path that is somewhat certain if not precisely defined. The addition of complexity should indicate another round of character development taking place.
This is the end of the second act.
The beat and uneasy melody from 3:06 are combined.
This serves to draw comparisons with the problem that the characters face and the journey they must undertake to solve it. There is still no solution apparent, but at least the audience has been reassured that the characters and the problem are clearly connected.
In the Lego Movie, the heroes identify Lord Business as the enemy and know that they must defeat him before Taco Tuesday. The actual outcome and how it comes about remains an unknown at this point however.
The problem and its implications are explicitly defined and explained by Maxi Jazz.
Here the ultimate problem and the dilemma it poses are clearly presented to the audience. The origins of the problem are not so important any more as the complications it produces and why solving the problem is the wiser choice.
This is the ‘pep talk’ scene in many films. The characters know the climax is approaching, now they prepare for it.
The solution to the problem appears! “I have to get some sleep.” The listener already knows this, the singer however, does not.
The answer is now not only absolutely clear, but a path to achieving it is also clearly visible. In HttYD, the solution to the town’s problems was not to destroy the dragon’s nest, or the dragons themselves, but the single queen controlling both.
The climax! With a suddenness that is not entirely unexpected, the true signature hook of the song is revealed. This is the part that defines everything that came before and is the part that will stick in the minds of the listener far better than any other part of the song.
This is it, whatever problem that the characters originally had will culminate in this scene. The mechanics of the climax are well known, but as described above for the song, it should be the single thing that jointly defines the film and is remembered by the audience long after the end credits.
The Incredibles is a great example where the climax with Syndrome and the Omnidroid, which has been building, culminates with the internal relationships of the family being fully rebuilt and strengthened. Both dilemmas were built up over the course of the film, but only in this scene are they truly resolved. (Yes, the family re-unite as a unit prior to the climax, but only in the battle are their relationships put to the test.)
The beat returns, tying everything in the climax to what lead up to it.
Now things should be in full flow. This is the actual climactic scene where everything is resolved but when the action and intensity are highest. I shouldn’t need to explain why the climax is important.
The purity of the theme. This is the endpoint, the goal of the song, to this point.
Within the climax itself, this is where the revelation of ultimate theme or reason behind the entire film is revealed. In other words, this is when the audience should utterly, and completely understand everything that the film and its characters stand for, and why that is so.
Bob fighting the Omnidroid is not the film’s overarching theme; the fact that the family loves each other is. Hiccup defeating the queen is not the tpoint, the [hitherto suppressed] unconditional nature of the love Stoick has for his son is. Aerial meeting the love of her life is not important, the decision by King Titan to allow her to pursue her own dreams free of his interference is.
The post-climax conclusion. It is short and does not overshadow everything that went before. The problem has been solved.
When everything is said and done, this is the wrapping-up scene. It’s short, it’s sweet, and while the remnants of the rest of the film remain, they do not overburden things. In Toy Story, the wrapping up scene harkens back to the birthday party earlier in the film, but the same problem that faced Woody then is not present.
Animated films in particular have become stymied into comedies, but even for more serious film, the comparison holds true. The Tale of Princess Kaguya has an exceptionally slow tempo and long runtime, yet it never once lets up and continually moves and nudges the viewer towards the conclusion.
Conversely, ParaNorman kicks off with a great first act, but completely loses the beat and tempo near the end of the second act. The film practically ‘takes a break’, so much so that Michael Sporn felt it necessary to comment on it in his review.
‘Insomnia’ demonstrates how all the important elements of a film must act in a cohesive manner, but do so in a way that continually and relentlessly builds towards the climax. The listener is never ‘bored’ with the song, it continually hints and teases that there is more to come, all the while promising a satisfying conclusion. Any film that does not do something similar is doomed to be boring and predictable.
PS. Everything discussed in this post is applicable to short films as well; they’re just a lot more compressed time-wise than features are.