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5 Things to Avoid When Making Your Nollywood Action Film (Part 1)

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From its inception to date, Nollywood has struggled to achieve success in the action film genre. While the industry’s releases have certainly advanced beyond the pishaun-pishaun action flicks of the ‘90s and early ‘00s, we still haven’t created that action film which stamps its authority as the groundbreaker. Why is this so?

To answer that, we must understand a defining nature of the action genre. What an action film essentially does is cinematize the presence and threats of violence (real or perceived) within a society. In other words, filmmakers take the manifestations of violence within a society, or the ways it threatens to manifest, and explore that through cinema.

Four types of violence

This presence and threat of violence can be categorised into four groups: physical, psychological, emotional and philosophical violence (i.e a belief system regarding violence and its place in that society, think the USA’s gun culture or East Asia’s martial arts culture). Thus in film industries around the world we find action movie genres reflecting a society’s experiences with, reactions to, and perspectives on violence.

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Cinematically this could result in serious cinema like Nicholas Winding Refn’s DRIVE where the film is defined by psychological and emotional violence which erupt in gory physical violence; or Yimou Zhang’s HERO (the one with Jet Li) where physical violence provides an aesthetic backdrop to the exploration of themes such as leadership/rulership, patriotism etc, underlined by philosophical violence; or any of Steven Seagal’s movies where physical violence is the defining element, underlined by a celebration of violence in heroism.

The Nollywood dilemma

Contrary to popular belief, the restraints holding Nollywood action movies back are not LOGISTICAL (budget, equipment, tech, etc) but CONCEPTUAL (idea, approach, thought). The problem isn’t HOW to shoot a Nollywood film; the problem is how to translate the presence and threats of violence in Nigeria into distinct and compelling cinema.

We could examine the four categories above in this light, but that’s another blog post for another day.

What this article aims to do is examine 5 different trends in Nigerian action films which appear to be favourable approaches when making a Nollywood action movie but actually, and slyly so, do way more damage than good.

Here I examine 2 out of these 5 things to avoid and in part 2 of this article I examine the remaining 3. So here we go!

  1. It is vital that you avoid … HOLLYWOODIZATION

Hollywoodization refers to a (Nigerian) film made with such overt use of Hollywood styles and techniques that it ends up an imitation of Hollywood cinema rather than a film with a unique identity. Hollywoodization plagues Nigerian cinema as whole (indeed it’s the defining factor behind the industry’s identity crisis) but it is especially noticeable in action films because of how distinct the genre’s nuances are.

Imitation is not to be confused with influence. Like societies, film industries are influenced by foreign cultures and cinema. Hollywood’s cowboy films where massively influenced by Japanese Samurai films, yet the former is a respectable genre in its own right.

Where an industry swerves off track is when it fails to ADAPT those foreign influences to its indigenous nuances. This is what Nollywood is yet to do successfully. As a result, rather than a Nigerian action film gaining recognition as a work of its own merit, it gains recognition for being a replica of a superior (Hollywood) counterpart.

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This is often summarised, often not deliberately, in the much popular expression: ‘they tried oh, it’s almost like oyibo film’.

Why should you avoid it?

Because art is imitation but imitation is not art. A filmmaker with any dignity in his/her art aspires to be recognised for his/her film art, not for its qualities as a knock off, no matter how impeccable the imitation.

Is an impeccable imitation even possible? The stringent circumstances of Nollywood means the imitation has almost no chance of being as good as the original. But even if it is possible, why aspire for such a lowly achievement?  Is being a second rate Hollywood knock off the best a first rate Nollywood film can hope to achieve?

On the business side Hollywoodization is also a bad idea. Why? Because you can’t outdo Hollywood. You can’t out-Keanu-Reeves Keanu Reeves, you can’t out-Statham Jason Statham, you can’t out-Woo John Woo. (Don’t get the wrong idea, this isn’t an indictment of lack of talent in Nollywood, as, from Hollywood’s perspective, the reverse is also true: they can’t out-Loko Sam Loko, they can’t out-Pete Pete Edochie, they can’t out-G Mama G.)

If you plan to market your action film to Western audiences Hollywoodization is your worst enemy. To Western audiences the imitation factor of your film will be more heightened and so will its inferiority.  Think about it, would you watch a Japanese actor TRYING AND FAILING to act like a Nigerian actor when you could simply watch a Nigerian actor?

What can you do?

There’s no definite or quick way out of this dilemma. Its solution comes down to the development of a visual and performative language that is uniquely Nigerian in the presentation of an action film.

The onus rests on directors, screenwriters and actors to explore themselves, their society and their influences so as to discover this language. Nigerian filmmakers need to find and extract the defining principle behind their influences, then filter redundant aspects. Every film industry around the world has done this at some point.

The succession of trial and error this implicates may scare off producers, but glory awaits whoever is bold enough to take on the challenge – you’d essentially be defining an entire genre!

  1. Alert! Alert! Must avoid … CRAPPY LOOKING CGI (COMPUTER GENERATED IMAGE)

We are coming into the animation game at a very very late point in time, and we’re not moving fast enough.

The nineties were a key transition period for CGI in film. Through the 20th century groundbreaking movies like TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, JURASSIC PARK and THE MATRIX, signalled an upsurge in the quality of CGI at the turn of the century.

Today, CGI quality is so far advanced and growing so rapidly that any film industry only now venturing into animation has to climb a mountain to catch up – and, if that wasn’t tough enough, a mountain whose apex is continuously growing.

For Nollywood to catch up to the international standard of CGI in film a large scale influx of resources is compulsory. Whether the industry has a structural set up to make such a large scale influx profitable is up for debate. What isn’t up for debate is that such an influx is nowhere in sight.

As such, Nollywood filmmakers who want or, more importantly, need to use CGI in their films are forced to manage standards their international peers abandoned years, maybe decades, ago.

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Why should you avoid it?

Simple, crappy looking CGI makes your film look crappy. Audiences have been exposed to high quality CGI for so long that anything below standard is instantly rejected, likely ridiculed.

When used carelessly, even good CGI can disrupt the experience of a film, how much more when the CGI sucks. Crappy CGI turns your film into an object of ridicule and in the age of the internet troll … well.

Some Nollywood filmmakers often attempt to appeal to the empathy and brotherly support of the Nigerian audience. Basically taking the ‘at least we tried’ approach, appealing – directly or indirectly – to audiences to appreciate them for at least making the attempt, no matter how low in standard.

The problem with this approach is that its impact is only momentary. Audiences continue to be fed such a rich diet of quality CGI that they can’t enjoy anything less. Appealing to audiences to tolerate low quality CGI out of some sense of nationhood is like asking a guy who’s used to enjoying more than a fine glass of Romanée-Conti to drink shekpe because patriotism.

What can you do?

First of all, DON’T USE CGI if you don’t NEED it. CGI is a tool NOT a requisite of action films, if you don’t need it, and, most especially if you’re struggling with low quality CGI, DON’T USE IT. That alternative you think doesn’t exist exists.

If you need or you (stubbornly) WANT to use CGI, then be smart about it. Your best bet is for the director, producer, screenwriter and graphic designer to work closely together. The four can optimize CGI use in relation to story, technical capacities, and budget.

It could be tricky but a good scriptwriter can craft a story such that the designer’s CGI strengths are emphasised while his weaknesses are de-emphasised or eliminated altogether.

Another option is what I call the Kill Bill approach’. This basically means using 2D instead of 3D graphics. 2D is comparatively easier to render and getting high quality 2D is very much achievable. The problem is it completely changes the visual feel and style.

I call it the Kill Bill approach’ because it refers to Quentin Tarantino’s use of 2D for the ‘Origin of O-Ren’ sequence in volume 1 of his 2003 classic. The effect is compelling and one of my favourite movie moments.

The stark shift in visual appearance, from live humans to 2D, is potentially a tough one to handle but with experimentation and bold storytelling we could create a compelling style/convention in Nollywood.

It goes without saying that if you have the financial capability to foot high quality CGI then have at it! AND DO NOT HOLD BACK! Again, if this will eat up a bulk of your budget work closely with your screenwriter so as to maximise the balance between budget and script.

No point having great CGI but a shitty story; no point having a great story but shitty CGI. If the CGI in your film cannot be ahead of its time, the least it should be is of its time. To deliberately be behind its time is inviting disaster.

NEXT WEEK ON THE PENSAGE SCROLLS …

They say the sequel is never better than the original? Well, we’ll find out won’t we? Be on the lookout for …

  1. Don’t be kobo wise, naira foolish, avoid … A Weak Ass Story/Plot
  2. Do everything in your power to avoid … Poorly Conceived Combat And Action Scenes
  3. May the force guide you to avoid … A Pointless Trailer
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Movie Talk On Sundays (#MTOS) for April 26: Weird Films

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Movie Talk on Sundays (MTOS) is a Twitter chat that takes place every Sunday at 8:00pm (UK time). Fun and insightful, it’s a great hangout for cinema lovers. Just follow the hashtag #MTOS – and you can bring your own popcorn! I’m hosting this week’s chat and the topic is: weird films.

Art is founded on the unusual

The weird, the whacky, the bizarre, the quirky, the wonderful! Some films give us cinematic experiences that are nothing like the ‘typical’ encounters. Cinema as a whole was once a strange art form, in due time distinctions developed between the conventional and the not so conventional. Today there is a seeming split between the (somewhat) usual and (so-called) weird films. Whether they make us laugh, cry, grimace, puke, shock us, amaze us, or confuse us, they leave a mark. Let’s talk about weird movies!

  1. Do you love weird films, deliberately seek them out? Do you hate them, deliberately avoid them? Are you indifferent or undecided?
  2. What are the best and worst weird movies you’ve seen? What do you think made the best work and the worst fail?
  3. Sometimes ‘weird’ can stray into ‘pretentious’. Which film do you consider guilty of this? Which do you consider wrongly accused?
  4. Atmosphere is vital to film. What production designer/art director or cinematographer best captures the ‘atmosphere of the weird’?
  5. Aronofsky, Lynch, Burton, so many others. Which filmmaker is the undisputed master when it comes to making weird films?
  6. What are the best & worst weird acting performances – one male, one female – you’ve seen in a film? (Emphasis on just the acting)
  7. In your opinion, what little known weird film is an absolute must-watch?
  8. If you could live in the world of one weird film, which would it be and which character would you live as?
  9. You have a blank cheque and creative carte blanche, what’s your idea for a weird film? Who would you cast? Who would direct?
  10. Is ‘weird’ the right word to describe films that ignore convention? Is the term a misnomer? Prejudicial? Or spot on?

Dear Nollywood … A Love Letter

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Dear Nollywood,

How are you? It’s been a while since we hooked up on here, hasn’t it? Forgive me, I’ve been occupied with a bunch of personal stuff. While I was away I did keep up with all the exciting stuff going on in your life, though! You aren’t ever a boring girl, are you? I remember you celebrated October 1st in style, and everyone loved that (in fact I hear the party is still going on). And I must confess, I got a bit jealous when I heard you asking some other guy what happens When Love Happens? Anyway …

Nollywood, there’s something I really want to talk to you about. It’s a sensitive topic and I hope it doesn’t get you mad, yet strangely I hope it does get you mad. Not mad like never-want-to-talk-to-him-again mad, or mad like hire-Lasgidi-area-boys-to-kick-his-ass mad; certainly not mad like cancel-our-traditional-wedding-and-return-his-bride-price mad. But mad like I-have-to-do-something-about-this mad; mad like I-have-to-be-responsible-for-myself mad, you know?

Here’s the thing babe, these days, it’s getting harder to recognize you for who you are. Your identity is fading away, Nollywood. Perhaps more specifically, the uniqueness of your identity is fading away, vanishing, and frankly that worries me. You’re in an identity crisis, babe, and we have to address that.

Now, I’m going to say something and I don’t think it’s something you’ll like to hear, so I’ll just come out and say it: Nollywood, this identity crisis all began when you started hanging out with that American girl, Hollywood. Yes, yes! I know, I know! She’s very pretty, has a great rack and an ass that won’t quit. And she’s also friend’s with the Kardashians … I know. I’m not saying it’s bad to be friends with her, no. I’m also not saying it’s bad that she influences you, no. What I am saying is, it’s messed up that you’re letting her influence on you distract you from discovering and exploring who you are.

See, Hollywood is doing her thing, being herself, and that’s inspiring. But rather than that inspiring you to do your own thing and be your own self, you’re abandoning your identity and trying to be Hollywood. Nollywood, that’s messed up. You’re not Hollywood and Hollywood isn’t you. Would Hollywood be a cool chick if she was trying to be like that Indian babe that lives across the street, Bollywood? Would Bollywood be so hot if she started acting all European? And what if Euro chicks started pretending to be like those sexy girls from the Orient and the sexy girls from the Orient started behaving like South American mamacitas? See where I’m going?

I’ve been doing some thinking, Nollywood, and I think I get it. I mean, why you’re so hung up on Hollywood, I get it. You spent your life watching Hollywood! Think about it! From childhood to your teenage years you watched out the window as Hollywood teased her cleavage and swung her hips and all the guys just fell under her spell. And now that you’re beginning to grow into a beautiful lady yourself, you think that in order to be sexy and beautiful you have to be like Hollywood.

But it’s a big world out there, Nollywood. A big big world and there are so many ways to be beautiful. What makes you sexy, and what will make all those guys swoon because of you, are the things that are unique about you. (I mean, why should they toast a Hollywood-wannabe, when they can actually toast Hollywood?) I’d really really like to go out on a date with you to the cinema (our favourite spot, right?), get some drinks and popcorn, and watch a movie that doesn’t feel like a pitiful knock-off of J’Lo’s romantic comedies from the early 00s, or a poor photocopy of thrillers from the late 90s, or action movies that look like The Matrix shot on a deficit.

One very cool influence Hollywood has had on you is providing some pretty awesome things with which you can accessorize your persona. I can’t tell you how so damn good you look anytime you step out in that form fitting DSLR dress that accentuates your curves, and those Red Dragon heels that push up your booty, and that flashy F55 handbag, and… whoo! So so so much better than that VHS outfit you used to wear before. But these things are meant to aid you find yourself Nollywood, not lose yourself.

Take the world by the scruff of its neck! Don’t be afraid to explore what it means to be Nollywood. Experiment! Get adventurous! A great discovery of who you are awaits you, but you have to take the leap. The lovers you are trying to attract, whether it is a true love or a sugar daddy, will be way more attracted to a “you” that is like no one else, not a “you” that is a cheap imitation of someone else.

Learn from the errors of your elder sister, Federal Government. For many years have people not been encouraging her to get involved in other ventures apart from that her crude oil business? Did she listen? No! Now the price of oil barrels is dropping like a hot piece of ass in a Snoop Dog video and she’s getting all confused and panicky. Don’t wait until you are at the fringes of a crisis, Nollywood, please don’t.

The myriad of identities are what make life on this third rock such a beautiful and captivating experience. Be part of that adventure Nollywood, a full part, not just an imitation of it.

With relentless love,

Pensage.

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