On Location

So, I finally saw Toy Story 3 this weekend. I loved it—Michael Keaton as clotheshorse Ken was perfect casting, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head always make me laugh, and whoever played that dramatic porcupine deserves an Academy Award. And, yes, my suspicions were not confirmed—they didn’t all die in the end, however much Eric’s comment may have convinced me otherwise. That said, what I loved the most was the story’s inventiveness and use of place.

Let’s face it, as Hollywood budgets for summer blockbusters expand, the sets get bigger, the special effects nastier, and the locations trendier. Except Toy Story 3. Think back, most of the action took place in a daycare center. The other parts of the movie were set in Andy’s house and a trash dump. Not exactly Pirates, right? Yet these set limitations set the writers’ imaginations on fire—adding a baroque texture to an otherwise boring series of sets. The toy phone turns into Deepthroat, the children’s cubbies are prisons, and Ken’s plastic dream house is in fact a mansion. Ultimately, Andy’s house is home, the daycare the dramatic arena, and the dump the Hell the toys must overcome to get back.

Clint Eastwood, who probably never sat through any Toy Story movie, also does a good job establishing place on a minimal budget. In Million Dollar Baby, there are three main sets: the gym, the ring, and later the hospital. The gym is where Maggie learns, the ring where she proves herself, and the hospital where she finally lets go. It’s the simplicity of the ideas, and their presentation, that draws me to his direction. Where other directors try to take us to a million places to see one thing, Eastwood reveals several truths about living (and dying) in a set number of scenes and locations.

Look, a director’s job is to be observant, to see new things in old places. I know how important having that big budget is, but if Pixar and Eastwood can do things with so few set pieces, then I can’t help but think I can too. It’s that quiet revelation, the chemistry between two actors, or that depth of focus shot which keeps me interested in the story long after the effects of the special effects wear off.

What do you think? How do you approach movies with multiple sets? Why is Toy Story 3 such a good movie—or is it?

7 responses to “On Location

  1. Ooo, good points. I hadn’t thought of that, but I do know that in my graphic design classes, they always said that limitations actually make you more creative. Perhaps the same is true of sets: less can be more.

  2. writer-at-heart

    Clint Eastwood also did this in Gran Torino. And consider “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in which Taylor and Burton acted brilliantly, with a limited set. Converting from the stage to film often does naturally make the location and budget more limited, such as “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, some of Neil Simon’s plays , and “A Thousand Clowns” (nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay) There are also films such as “The Big Chill” that work well on limited sets because of the writing (nominated for an Oscar for best original screenplay) the music, and the chemistry of the actors. Would “Precious” also fall into this category? Good topic, sir.

  3. What makes Toy Story 3 – and most cartoons, to be honest – interesting in this regard is that their very nature makes the small worlds seem so huge, so adventurous, and so dangerous. Cartoons, more so than live-action, really has to commit to the kind of world it creates to give it viability. See, Avatar: The Last Airbender and Ducktales.

  4. @ Kristan – Thanks. Actually, there’s a great quote that speaks to your point that I think is from Oscar Wilde. To paraphrase, “Every great work of art comes from limitations.” I’m sure he said it much more artfully, ha ha.

    @ Writer – Agreed about The Big Chill. Haven’t seen “A Thousand Clowns.” What is this about? Worth watching?

    @ Kevin – And they do such a good job! I was thinking today, boy, I really would like to buy a porcupine toy. I’m 23. I haven’t considered buying any sort of plaything in at least a decade.

  5. 50% of my studies consisted of 3D animation… and I have to admit, I never sat through an entire 3D film, except for Wall-E, which we watched on the final day in college. I’m very interested in the technique behind 3D animation, but I’ve never had the patience to sit through any of Pixar’s etc. Is something wrong with me?! — to me, the stories and characters always seem very much alike — a cool guy, a coward, a group of followers,… and the love story.

  6. Pingback: Writerly Wednesday: Food for thought - Kristan Hoffman - Writing Dreams Into Reality

  7. Well…Toy Story 3 is such a good movie, ’cause my 5 year old says it’s good…and that’s that!


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