The best marketing tool a film studio has is the teaser. It says nothing, but leaves the door open for everything. The audience’s imagination is most important in filmmaking. It’s what turns actors into their characters and lavish sets and cardboard cut-outs into their respective environments.
A terrifying villain need not be seen until past the half way mark, as is the case with Jaws (1975) or more recently The Descent (2005), where the monster lies somewhere just out of sight. Some directors have also mastered the art of the open ending, where the audience member is free to imagine whatever conclusion they prefer, with enough clues for competing theories to emerge.
The original Star Wars trilogy was shot mostly on location on the planet Earth. The sandy surface of Tatoonie was actually filmed in Tunisia, but with the power of a running narrative it becomes an alien planet. The world of Star Wars is filled with snowy precipices, swamps and desert, which become planets into themselves when translated onto film. The Matrix (1999) invested all of the movie’s big budget effects into depicting “the real world,” while the fantasy world of the Matrix could have been any street corner in a major metropolitan area. The two sequels used this device less and less, and instead barraged audiences with CGI landscapes that were far less entertaining than the world of the Matrix.
The National Film Board of Canada made a short film in 1964 called 23 Skidoo, shot almost entirely in the streets of Montreal. The film features no dialogue or narration, but a carefully worded manuscript towards the end suggests a terrifying incident killed off the city’s population.
This is evidenced by shots of empty sidewalks and city streets — mind you, it was early in the morning when they were filming. Even without actors or more than a set, a story emerges. The same effect was used in 28 Days Later (2002), where scenes of London in the early hours of the day become post-apocalyptic images.
AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) is probably the greatest example of a film falling flat on its face despite every effort to make it look pretty. With Stanley Kubrick originally slated to direct, the film eventually fell into the capable of hands of his good friend Steven Spielberg. Kubrick didn’t believe it was possible to bring to life his story about an android boy until the right technology came along, but Speilberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) proved to him that his vision of the future was now possible.
Although his reasons for ditching the film are vague if unknown–some say it was too sentimental to suit his tastes–Kubrick may have realized that there was simply no way for audiences to love a robot, which is the same conclusion taken by most critics.
While the movie looked good in cinemas, the film failed to convince us that the film’s central character was a real person with real feelings, a fact that goes without saying about Haley Joel Osmond, who played him up on the screen.
The audience’s imagination is what turns actors into their characters, or even a dry desert into alien worlds, and if you can’t reach that pivotal first step, whatever follows can’t be saved.


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