First off, no, this has nothing to do with Terry Brooks…
So I recently saw Conan 3D 2011… and yeah I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not going to go into that because it’s been beaten to death elsewhere, and certainly here on Black Gate. Still, I had to wonder after seeing it, what did the world of Hyboria get for its 2011 dollar?
Considering the movie reviews and box office receipts, whatever the cost for art direction it was far too much. As I watched, I contemplated the words of John Fultz and his thoughts concerning the imagery of the movie when he said… wait, I’m going to go look this up so John can’t complain I misquoted him… Ok, here we go…
The Hyborian Age has never looked so wondrous, splendid, and believable on screen. From the virgin wilderness and Cimmerian villages to the decadent, sprawling cities, the vast monasteries, and the ancient citadels with skull-shaped caves, the movie simply looks fantastic. The costuming too is spot-on and suitably grimy, evocative, and well-designed. Same goes for the props: swords, spears, armor, ships, etc.
When I told him I didn’t think it was visually ‘all that’, he called me up at the L.A. offices and hit me with this line:
We’ll just have to agree to disagree on the visual beauty of the film. I thought it was fairly breathtaking, especially when it came to fantastic structures.
Certainly John and I have on many occasions agreed to disagree, and yet the more I thought about it the more I wondered at cost versus return. Conan died on his own petard, the writing, as will most any film save two notable recent releases in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen [Budget 200 million, Gross Sales 836 million, IMDB Rating 5/10, Rotten Tomatoes 20%/3.9] or Clash of the Titans 2010 [Budget 125 million, Gross Sales 163 million, IMDB Rating 5.8/10, Rotten Tomatoes 28%/4.3]. These somehow fooled the economic crash-driven public to shell out a hard earned dollar for visual effects without the benefit of a story. I guess sometimes escapism prevails…
Instead of going into these other films, however, I decided to take a weekend and break down four fantasy films in which art direction and fantasy cities come into play. The primary of these would of course be Conan the Barbarian 3D 2011.
Here are the preliminary numbers I could get on this film at the time of my writing:
Conan the Barbarian 3D 2011:
IMDb Rating: 5.3 [out of 10], Rotten Tomatoes: 23% approval/rotten/4 [out of 10]
Budget: 70 Million
Opening Weekend [US]: $10,021,215
Gross: [US] $16,660,669 (as of 28 August 2011) [I got these numbers on Sept 9th, so it looks like the studio cut IMDb off from further updates of the bloodletting]
What did we get to see in this film that stands out in my mind? Well, we had Conan’s origin point in a Cimmerian village. Nothing new here, which is to say standard ‘real world’ fantasy portrayed with dirty people, dirty village, sometimes cold, sometimes warm, and always looking non-agrarian [seriously, what do these people eat!?]. I’m going to give it a rating of 5 out of 10 simply because it does nothing overtly wrong from a visual sense.
We then move into the world of digital rendering, with a trip to Messantia where we see only the cityscape and then the interior of a tavern, and later Arlagon, where Conan rides toward it on what I refer to as ‘the odd-colored line’ near the proximity of the city, and once again we are inside a tavern and then gone again. My city rating: 2, as the film showed me nothing of the city itself other than a backdrop, and when I did see real life action outside the city, I could see where reality left of and digital began. Just terrible… Again, John says it was beautiful, I say it was slight of hand that lets the viewer believe we’ve seen something awesome when actually we’ve been shown an empty promise.
Note: I define ‘the odd-colored line’ as anything that you see as real set against a blue screen. This personal tag comes from watching old cartoons and seeing something that will be changed or break on the frame that varies in color from the rest of the image surrounding it. If you are looking for a non-animated version of this, watch Return of the Jedi where R2 and 3PO are on the path to Jabba’s Palace. You can see where the real stony path ends and the digital backdrop begins.
Conan also includes a world tour that gets three big-budget digital renditions, the fortress of Khalar Zym, the Monastery of Fassir, and the Skull Cave.
Zym’s fortress is much like Angkor Wat painted black, and which is first seen from afar, then in its dungeon, its royal torture suite, and finally a small scene on a battlement. This is ok, probably the best directed of the big budget setting scenes, but still I’m not blown away. I’ll be kind and give it a 6…
The Monastery is the best setting in the movie, and probably cost some nice coin as it is well rendered in digital glory, the cavernous opening to the place hides any ‘odd-color’ and the subsequent raid shows a great deal of real built structure which was nice. I’m going for a 7.5 here, and I wish the rest of the movie could have maintained this rating.
A last nail in the coffin of this art direction disaster is going to be The Skull Cave, which simply put is beyond cliché, and painful to watch. Seriously, I think there might have been a skull cave in my first D&D session when I was 10, and it wasn’t even cool then. It’s a horrible place for a final conflict, and when it collapses into the sea my relief at its demise was far greater than that of the overthrow of Zym or his nefarious daughter. Rating 1, and that’s only because there is no zero.
So, in total, if I give the rest of the movie’s scenes an average of a cinematic 5, a budget of 70 million dollars buys you a Black Gate Art Direction Rating of 4.41, not a good use of your studio dollar.
To help compare apples to apples, the next choice is Conan The Barbarian 1982:
Conan the Barbarian 1982:
IMDb Rating: 6.8 [out of 10] Rotten Tomatoes: 75% approval/fresh/6.4 [out of 10]
Budget: 20 Million
Opening Weekend [US]: $9,603,139
Final Box Office Gross[Worldwide]: $68,851,475
Now, once again I’m going to drop the film review and just go for art direction. In this movie, there are three basic budget breakers, what I believe to be the City of Thieves [capital of Zamora], Thulsa Doom’s Mountain of Power, and The Stones of the final big battle for the life of the princess.
First, the City of Thieves, where Conan and Subotai come into contact with Valaria. The lucky part, in 1982 there wasn’t much in the way of digital rendering, so what you see is what you get. The drawback, what you see is what you get… but as I watched this film again I was taken with just how well it’s all pulled off. We first get to see the city from the outside, then the streets, then the markets, then both inside and outside the Tower of Set, then a tavern, then a king’s court. I mean, we really get to SEE the city, feel it, smell it, and I’m blown away with what they managed to do. Rating 8.5, and I’d like to give it more, but they did the absolute best with what they had.
The Mountain of Power becomes epic here, throngs of people, sandy mountain setting, massive steps that make me want to throw up as I imagine climbing them. We are shown extensive scenes both outside and in, the interior orgy room as well as the Thulsa speech exterior chamber are wonderfully rendered. Rating 8 as I’d like to see a bit more color splashed in someplace.
The final large-scale conflict comes at a place I’ll call ‘The Stones’, a ruin that reminds of Stonehenge with a more practical feel. I love this placement in the tale, love the austere beauty of it, and it’s truly a perfect place for a handful of men to take on a small throng of warriors if you don’t have a fortress to hide in. Rating 7.5 as there isn’t really that much to it, but for purpose it serves with honor.
Other settings include The Wheel where Conan spends his youth, his village which is akin to the 2011 reboot, the gladiator pits, and the eastern training bastion. Still, I think perhaps the most impressive art direction in the movie is simply the scope of the travel. This, at its essence, makes an epic movie. The audience needs to feel that they’ve taken a journey with the characters, and whole sequences are dedicated to Conan running, and running, and, well, running. Here the movie picks up a nice bump, the world captured with a Rating of 8.5. To me, we’ve gone to the setting and explored a reality in it, which is the purpose of the art direction.
Final Black Gate Art Direction Rating for the 20 million: 8.125
Our next movie was chosen for two primary reasons, its obese budget and of course a fantastic venue with a large city.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time :
IMDb Rating: 6.7 [out of 10] Rotten Tomatoes: 36% approval/rotten/5 [out of 10]
Budget: 200 Million
Opening Weekend [US]: $37,813,075
Final Box Office Gross [US]: $90,755,643
This film was a fractured story nightmare, but besides that, it had all the makings of an artist’s dream job. I mean really, 200 million? How couldn’t this movie have been a huge hit? Well, I’m going to go with the computer game angle taken in much of the art scenes.
Watching this film is like looking at a shiny new toy. Each scene drips with cash, from the horse barding to the swiveling camera angles that take you out, then around, then in at alarming speed. Seriously, I felt at times like I had an Xbox 360 controller in hand and was using the zoom/swivel paddle…
That being said, I can’t knock the art direction. The film is a beauty, and although I could at moments see the computer generation, I was taken with it, my brain pushing aside the obvious to marvel at what was being portrayed.
The holy city of Alamut is a focal point for the tale and Disney spared no expense bringing it to life. It is a huge undertaking, and as I watched the larger shots of it I couldn’t help but think how money can make digital cities larger and larger, Alamut at least twice the size of Conan 2011’s Messantia and ten times that of Conan 1982’s Zamoran City of Thieves. Art direction here expands the palace, shows us teaming city streets, races about under gates, develops a nice overhead map of the place that we can swing around, and Dastan [the Prince of Persia] even stands on various walls overlooking everything. Rating 8.5, and that’s just because digital is almost too shiny, like a $500 Roman Centurion Halloween costume that doesn’t look right because it’s so pristine.
Valley of Slaves is our second main venue, and it is a heaping throng of torches, random poles, and dirty folk. The ostrich race is well done even if it makes me roll my eyes, and if the movie didn’t impose some improbable storyline here one could be nicely lost in the construction of it all. Rating 7.
The Sandglass Cave is probably the angle where things went wrong. Here, my art director mind is looking for an upgrade of Raiders of the Lost Ark but instead gets mired in over the top blue screens, unreal jumps, a heroine that has no reason to survive, and all around head-spinning video game action. I had to wonder as I watched it how many times I’d need to hit save and reset before I actually made it to the boss battle. Rating 6… too over the top.
All travel in the movie, including those to Persia, are nicely done, but I’m deducting points because we jump about too much for me to feel comfortable with what I’m seeing. Overall Rating 6.
Final Black Gate Art Direction Rating for the 200 million: 6.875
The final movie was included because it’s an adaptation of a classic fantasy story and because it is considered a travel epic.
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring 2001:
IMDb Rating: 8.8 [Out of 10] Rotten Tomatoes: 92% approval/certified fresh/8.1 [out of 10]
Budget: $93 Million
Opening Weekend [US]: $66,114,741
Final Box Office [Worldwide]: $870,761,744
What can be said about the art direction of Fellowship of the Ring other than it’s priceless, even if it did cost a little less than $100 million. Somewhere in time Peter Jackson got it right, but in all fairness to the subject, he did have a great deal of backlog to work with.
That’s not to say that Conan isn’t the same, I mean Frank Frazetta and Arnold Schwarzenegger did previously brand the character into the subconscious of America, but still, there is no doubt the LOTR has been portrayed a hundred times more than Conan. So, if Jackson was smart, and he was, he could stick with the greatest of source material that was already out there and make a gorgeous movie.
This film also has a distinct advantage in its overall length, and even more so in the extended edition, because with that much time one can go to great lengths to be epic. The features of this film can be broken down into five basic categories, the bulk coming in The Shire, Rivendell, Moria, and then Lorien.
First, we’ll tackle The Shire, and for the first time in any of the above films we get to see the color green… or really any other color than stone or sand. The brilliance of this setting is what helps make the rest of the movie so dramatic in its darkness, and every inch of this rural paradise is stupendous from Bag End to the Bucklebury Ferry. Rating 9
Next we are delivered to Rivendell and the House of Elrond [Note here, my spell check recognized both Rivendell and Elrond… how cool and scary is that?] Here we are exposed to the incredible artist’s depiction of elves and the fancy homes they live in. It’s a beautiful place, if more lofty than the Shire, and yet we are compelled to believe every inch of it. Rating 8.5
The Mines of Moria are our first look at true darkness in the world, and it doesn’t disappoint. I well remember seeing the great hall sometime around 2:30 AM on premiere night and being utterly lost in its depth. There may have been a gleam here of computer generation, but only a touch, just a smooch, like you’re kissing your sister…. Rating 8
And last we see Lorien, realm of Galadriel and Celeborn. I mean really, didn’t we all want to be elves and live in trees at some point? This is also done brilliantly, although perhaps a tad over the top. It does, however, stick well with the true words of Tolkien, so I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. Rating 7.5
The journey, pure genius, including the ruins and fight at the end. Also, we get to see our only true city as a kind of aside when Gandalf remembers riding to Minas Tirith. Absolute 10!
Final Black Gate Art Direction Rating for the 93 million: 8.6
That makes four fantasy movies with a total price tag of 383 million. Who comes out with the best bang for the buck, well Conan 1982 on an initial look, but I had to wonder about inflation so I did a little digging.
In 1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark was released with a budget of 18 Million, and in 2008 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out with a budget of 185 Million. That, for you scoring at home, is a 1000% increase in movie making costs from the early 80s to the late 00s. So, in turn, Conan 3D should have had a budget of 200 Million if we are taking into account its original cost in 1982 versus a reboot in 2011.
The question remains, however, would 200 Million have made a difference? Well, no, unless you hired a different writer, or like the greatest fantasy franchises of the past decade have done [Harry Potter and LOTR] actually used the original text as a guide, which also means LONGER MOVIES. I mean come on, how can Frost Giant’s Daughter and Red Nails not make for a great flick? The prime example of this resonates in the above with the beautiful Prince of Persia at 200 million that profoundly lacks in both story and acting ability.
I would also contend that ‘extra’ money isn’t always a good thing as Star Wars Episode I shows us. In 1999 it was budgeted at 115 million and yet is visually woeful compared to Star Wars Episode IV 1977 at 13 million. There is something to be said for ‘reality’ even in fantasy, the look and feel of real objects and sets drawing more appeal to the eye unless your art direction team knows exactly what it’s doing, ala Avatar 2009 [Budget $237 million, Gross Sales $2 billion, IMDb Rating 8.1/10, Rotten Tomatoes 83%/7.4]. I mean, Joss Whedon’s Serenity 2005 [Budget $40 million, Gross Sales $38 million, IMDb Rating 7.9/10, Rotten Tomatoes 81%/7.1] had a ridiculously low budget and was filmed in L.A., which is unheard of, and yet one cannot question the reality of the film’s art direction and believability. Even if its financials don’t overwhelm, look at its ratings compared to the aforementioned box office giant Avatar. Why so close? Well, because audiences walked out of both movies with a sense of wonder and transportation to a different world.
I guess the point is that if you’re going to take an audience someplace your first job is to make them believe in the journey. A beautiful backdrop is just fluff if there is no substance around it, and Conan 3D not only proves that visually, but then backs it up with lack of continuity in its woeful script. I mean, even costuming for this film, which Fultz calls ‘spot on’, takes a deathblow when Conan announces that Tamara looks like a whore when she’s actually dressed like a rather puritanical and fully covered Persian princess aboard his pirate ship. In challenge to his name calling, she shows him that she isn’t a whore and changes into a corset and over-the-knee boots without pants… Really!? I’m pretty sure I should have gotten up and left right there.
Ok, so after all the above, what have I proved? Well, hopefully I’ve shown that movies don’t live and die on the art director’s budget, but that the level of art direction is truly a key to providing visual entertainment. Still, there is no golden bullet here, and sometimes bad scripts become blockbusters because of effects, while other times great scripts and fine graphics don’t make budget.
Having stated that, I can’t help but take some final shots at Conan 3D and how bad it was in every facet because I’ve put so much work into this post that I feel probable cause to do so. Before I start, let me list this stat: Conan 3D opened on 3015 screens, with average ticket prices at $8.19 and 3D tickets $2 higher still.
In 1983 the S&S film Deathstalker was put out under limited release. ‘Stalker’ was filmed in Argentina for a six-pack of Coors and box of two-head VCRs while staring Hollywood C-listers Rick Hill and former Playboy model Barbi Benton. On opening weekend it was released on 166 screens at an average admission price of $3.15. When it closed its run, it had gross U.S. sales totals of over $11 million, just $5 million behind Conan in its 2nd week.
If Deathstalker isn’t enough, how about the horrific Lee Horsley vehicle, The Sword and the Sorcerer from 1982? I mean come on… this movie is about a guy with a three-bladed sword that can shoot two of the blades at people! The film was made for $1.8 Million and released on 233 screens. Total U.S. gross sales… $39 million… Yep, Conan 3D will never make it close to $39 Million, and average ticket prices in 1982 were only $2.94!
Dig a little deeper, and you get the sci-fi/fantasy movie Krull, from 1983. It was made for an astounding 27 million and only grossed 16 million on 431 screens, but that’s still as much as Conan 3D! Oh, and I love this movie by the way, and if any of you know it you might remember that the ‘girl of ancient name’ is Lyssa… sound familiar?
But wait, there’s more! How about Marc Singer as The Beastmaster 1982? With a budget of $8 million, and final gross $14 million on 629 screens, it still turned a profit.
Is this giving anyone a clue as to Conan’s epic failure in every sense of the word?
So in the end, and I promise this IS the end, I say be wise with your money, both in seeing or creating a movie, and if there’s a magic kingdom for sale, you better send a home inspector in first… If you’ve done your job, the money and ratings should come.