How to Make a Convincing Fantasy Film

I came out of The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies a little bit ago and wrote a post nerd-gushing over that and Lord of the Rings because I love them, I love the lore, I love the books, and I’ll watch the extended editions of the DVDs repeatedly, and if you don’t like them, I’m sad for you. You poor thing.

The process of watching that film and then writing about all six films made me consider once again something that has bothered me for quite some time: the lack of quality fantasy films on the big screen. I’m not talking fantasy films like Pan’s Labyrinth or Pirates of the Caribbean, which are well done and quite enjoyable. I’m not talking about adaptations of existing books/comics, although there are several and most aren’t very good. I’m talking about epic fantasy, magic spells, dragons, liches, and a party of diverse professions and races to stop them.

Lord of the Rings was a resounding success, but the Dragonlance series made TSR publishing a powerhouse in the 80s and 90s and the Chronicles trilogy (Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Dragons of Winter Night, Dragons of Spring Dawning) would make for excellent screen material. The closest we got was a direct-to-DVD cartoon with less than savory art.

There are elements of predictability and the characters are a little stiff, but the action is taut with suspense and spectacle, and dialogue can be re-written. There are a greater variety of monsters, races we’ve never seen before (like the kender), stunning characters like Lord Soth the death knight, not just one dragon, but dragon riders and dragon battles, incredible displays of sorcery, betrayals, deaths. This is exciting stuff.

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Art by Matt Stawicki

Or you could do an original story, but you have to be careful not to fall into the same trap as the Dungeons and Dragons film, a film that failed because no one understood the property to the degree necessary to make a story that made sense and because no one had faith in it enough to cast stronger writers, stronger leads and a stronger direction.

Now, to change the subject a little bit, the original Star Wars trilogy is often considered a space fantasy. It’s obviously science fiction, what with the space ships, aliens, blasters… and space. You have bacta tanks that heal and a mechanical suit that helps sustain life. Giant mechanical walkers carrying troops, and droids who aren’t allowed into bars. However, the elements of fantasy are still there. You’ve got your basic hero’s journey, with the prodigal son realising he comes from powerful stock and is destined for great things. You have a mysterious force that allows air choking, laser deflecting and lightning bolts to shoot from your hand. There are even sword fights all the way through it. And your traveling party? A wizened old mystic, a princess turned rebel, a farm boy with his father’s sword, two droids, a scoundrel and a Wookie. That’s classic Dungeons and Dragons-style diversity, my friends. Space. Fantasy.

I mean, look at this:

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The tropes work in a science fiction setting, and science fiction is EVERYWHERE. Man, there are so many good science fiction films with broad scopes, huge ideas, incredible concepts and memorable characters. We don’t laugh at aliens (unless they’re meant to be laughed at), we embrace them. We’re scared of them. We want to meet them. We want to kill them. There are so many kinds.

So it bothered me that there weren’t more fantasy films on screen. Why wasn’t it working? Jupiter Ascending is coming out, and it looks gorgeous, but it looks like more than a science fiction film, despite corporations seeding worlds and massive spaceships and rocket boots. But then you have returning/reincarnated royalty, beautiful coronation ceremonies, an elf guy and a dragon man. I mean, come on.

But I think I figured it out. People can rationalize technology and alien life but not monsters and magic, and so they don’t consider that the same basic steps go into building a solid, visual world for the latter that goes into the former. So here they are, some tips to make a decent fantasy film. If any of you are bigwigs in the film industry or know someone who is, feel free to thank me in your academy award speech, or whatever.

Note: I’m probably going to compare to Star Wars a lot. Sue me.

1. Make compelling characters. I’ve said this time and time again, and I stand by it. My boss, at my day job, looks over our metrics several times a month. Of the ten, he insists that the customer service related metric is the most important. Make sure the customers are satisfied and feel taken care of. They’ll feel safe, they will trust you, and the rest of the metrics will come from that.

In much the same way, I believe that at the core of every great story are great characters. These are people you aspire to be, aspire to meet, that you root for, cry for, yell at, rail against. For whatever reason, you are invested in that character. Maybe they have the best lines. Maybe their relationship is tragic. Maybe it’s their personality flaws that you want them to overcome or that make you sad because they’re breaking him/her down.

Characters are important, and their relationships with each other are important. Do they trust each other? Has that trust been injured? Do they love each other? Did they once and no longer? Is there a secret language between two of them?

Think about your relationships with the people in your life, and not just the positive ones, and not just your friends or family. Was there a teacher you hated? Someone who didn’t believe in you? A person who broke your heart, or someone whose heart you’ve broken? A friend you’ve grown distant from, or a family member you consider a best friend?

Just because this is a fantasy film doesn’t mean the characters and their relationships should be anything less than authentic. Read their dialogue out loud. Does it sound like something a real person would say? Does one character have a certain cadence of speaking or prefer to be proper instead of using more casual lingo? Do they have an accent?

The audience is going to spend the story with these characters. If they feel fake, if they’re not interesting, if they’re not likeable or hateable, then you’ve created a disconnect right out of the gate. This will always be my first step.

2. Magic is your technology substitute.

Think about holograms and displays. Think about all the gadgets, from the Predator’s shoulder-mounted cannon to floating mapping devices in Prometheus, from the regular ol’ cool-looking flamethrower in Alien to hover boots and laser weapons and robots. These technological advancements are eye-catching. Things like mech suits and glowing nets arrest the attention and draw you in to all the neat little advancements of the future.

In a fantasy setting, for those who don’t use magic themselves (sorcerers, wizards), there are magic items. A ring that might slow your fall, a wand that fires missiles, a bracelet that increases your musculature when activated, or gives you rock skin. For those who actually cast spells, there are fireballs and lightning bolts, people can be transformed into animals or objects. Beasts can be summoned, demons trapped, enemies bound, weapons melted.

Magic can be as explosive and brilliant as any piece of cutting-edge technology, and it can be as versatile and creative as you want it to be.

In the same way that the sleek look or the gritty integration of your technology can define your science fiction world, the magic you use sets your fantasy world apart just as much, giving it its own life and catching the imagination of the viewers. Sure, you could make a call to someone and talk to their three dimensional hologram, but you could also mix some ingredients in a goblet and have a glowing spectral image appear.

3. There is virtually no difference between science fiction and fantasy when creating creatures or races.

In galaxy-spanning science fiction, humans find themselves mingling with a multitude of alien races, often in any street or business you find. Star Wars has their humans, Mon Calamari, Hutts, Trandoshans, Wookiees, Rodians and many more. In a fantasy film, you have your humans, elves and dwarves, sure, but then there are halflings, or kender, or gnomes, orcs, gnolls, tieflings, dragonborn, or any number of other races.

They might still share the same world (not that they necessarily have to), but they each have different cultures, home regions, customs, beliefs and appearances. You can have multiple races of elves or dwarves or orcs, with different appearances, temperaments and stigmas. You can subvert the classic tropes of well-known races. You can create races no one has ever heard of before. This adds the same kind of exotic flavor that your Star Wars and Star Treks and your Guardians of the Galaxies do.

As far as creatures? You can look at the flying serpent creatures and cat-like predators on a planet like Avatar’s Pandora and marvel at the fauna on a planet so far away. You can long to ride a tauntaun or a bantha, or quail in fear at the monstrous wampas.

But a fantasy world is the same as an alien world. There are going to be monsters you might have seen before and others you might not have heard of. You can have your dragons, but are they scaled or smooth? Four legs, or two? Winged, or not?

Then toss in some bugbears!

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Or a displacer beast!

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Or if you really want to ruin someone’s day, a mind flayer.

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Now, granted these are all Wizards of the Coast creatures, but you can see the sheer amount of imagination and originality that went into it. Sci-fi does it and fantasy has the same capabilities because it also takes place somewhere besides the Earth that we know.

4. Make your locations stand out.
I honestly can’t tell you this better than I can show it, so I’m going to show how scenery and locations can make your fictional world come alive by comparing science fiction locales to Peter Jackson’s successful and thriving Lord of the Rings locations.

Here is a picture of Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium, a paradise on a space station:

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And here are pictures of the elven outpost Rivendell:

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Here is a picture of Mos Eisley:

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And Lake-Town.

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Finally, here are Bright Tree Village on the moon of Endor…

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And Minas Tirith, in the kingdom of Gondor.

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The very sight of these places is evocative and stunning. Just because a fantasy setting is low-tech does not mean that the world is any less beautiful, jaw-dropping or transportive. And more than anything, it shows that fantasy and science fiction are two sides of the same coin, especially when the same level of care is given to the former as is much more often given to the latter.

I would love to see epic fantasy films as often as I see incredibly realised science fiction films. The stories are there, you just need to understand what the fundamental differences and similarities are and how to adapt them into the world you’re building. It’s all right there. Peter Jackson did it six goddamn times. Now let’s see more of that kind of love and attention to the story, to the genre.

I mean, Jesus, story-telling by its very nature is magical, isn’t it?

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