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Re: Star Trek -- Project: Potemkin "The Night the Stars Fell from the
Although DoubleOhFive beat me to the punch and his review ably covers much of the territory I’ve covered, I’ve still decided to post this review in the spirit of helpful feedback to the Potemkin crew in their ongoing attempts to improve subsequent segments. Also, episode writer David Eversole wanted me to critique the script without the kid gloves, so I’m here doing that.
Click the spoiler code if you dare.
“The Night The Stars Fell From the Sky”
This episode marks a big stretch for the producers of Project Potemkin, both in terms of scope and subject matter. Largely leaving the comfortable confines of their ship sets they venture to multiple outdoor locations, with all the complications that entails, filming a script that actually attempts to be about something—which is a rarity in fanfilm circles. That it doesn’t entirely work is actually something of a compliment, because while your reach may exceed your grasp, the act of striving for a higher goal is worthy of notice. Kudos for the effort.
I rarely discuss acting in fanfilms. Few of the performers in them have much acting experience, and if they do, usually not much film acting experience. Furthermore, in film an actor is highly dependent on the direction and the editing, which can make or break their performance (discussed when I talk about editing, below). As such, I think it’s unfair to ridicule fanfilm performances even when they are apparently dreadful.
However, I will comment when I see promise. And Jeffrey Green’s performance in these always stands out. Without even looking at his C.V. I can tell he’s had acting experience. In fact, he’s one of that those rare actors in fanfilms who actually has some vocal presence, which becomes even more apparent when he’s surrounded soft spoken performers who can’t seem to project or find a voice. I really want to like this character, but there is a problem: his Captain Grigory seems stuck in one gear. His delivery is so metered that sometimes it’s at odds with the rhythm of the scene or even the inflection of his voice. Directing yourself in a film is difficult to do, and I daresay it might be partly at fault here. Stronger direction, tighter editing and a script that pushes him more would capitalize on his strengths, which are clearly being underused to date. Heck, I’d like to direct this guy and see how far he can stretch.
I won’t recount the story and its particulars, but a TV Log Line for this could be “Captain Grigory’s resolve not to interfere with alien cultures is tested when he discovers a society divided by a war which could spell annihilation for one of the parties.”
On the surface of it, this is an interesting theme. The waters here are muddy because, as the Potemkin crew discovers, these people have previously been interfered with by the “Preserver” aliens who transported them to this planet in ages past.
In execution, however, the story doesn’t quite gel. Why?
A common bit of advice in TV series writer’s guides is something like, “Stories must always deeply involve our main characters. We do not want them ‘looking in’ on the problems of someone else. Neither should they be cast as ‘do-gooders.’ In other words, the problem should never become our problem merely by having our main characters push their way into it. Even when the story features guest stars, the problem is still to be a our people’s problem and the solution a our people’s solution.”
Unfortunately, this story fails to yield to such admonitions: the Potemkin crew are largely voyeurs—of a frustrated sort to be sure—of the problems of other people. There’s no personal stake other than for one incredibly naïve secondary character. Sure, lots of Trek episodes have this problem, but it’s still a problem.
Here Captain Grigory is a mere observer, focused only on solving the problem of his people being stranded on the planet and saying “we can’t interfere we can’t interfere we can’t interfere” until the end when suddenly he will. He doesn’t propel the story. He just reacts and reacts and reacts. Even his final, controversial decision, is mere reaction to the bad guy.
Yes, Grigory is making choices throughout, and the choice he’s making mostly is “save my ship, but don’t get involved.” The trouble is that this is drama, and as presented these aren’t very interesting choices.
At root the issue is that the story is what David Gerrold called a “puzzle box” problem in that the characters are arbitrarily trapped in the situation because of some doubletalk generator or someone bonking them on the head and stealing their squawk boxes; merely an exercise they have to resolve to move on. It’s more dramatically honest and serves the characters better for them to choose to put themselves in harm’s way rather than being put there by a meaningless plot contrivance: in this case, one which is neatly disposed of by literally pulling a plug.
It’s played as a “funny” moment, but that plug pulling is emblematic of the overall problem with this story because of what it says about our heroes. When they reach the doubletalk generator (a centuries-old piece of alien technology) that is trapping them on the planet, the frustrated Captain’s reaction is to just shut it off. No one even hesitates to consider whether this thing is vital to the planet and the survival of the people inhabiting it (is it an asteroid deflector, a weather control gizmo, a 50,000 watt Mexican AM radio station?). The resulting message is “Oh, we can’t interfere, even by taking out one sociopath. But damn the torpedoes we can shut off this thing we don’t understand because it’s messing with our ship.”
Let’s recap Grigory's choices:
Without knowing the current state of the culture, reintroducing supposedly forgotten (Surak’s) philosophies from centuries ago is apparently not interference.
Without knowing what it’s for, shutting off this powerful alien artifact is apparently not interference.
Taking sides in or stopping a turf war, that’s interference.
Excuse me. What?
Ensign T’Noshi’s character arc doesn’t work here because it requires her to become fascinated with, attracted to, and blinded by bad guy Sarat. In fact, her first reaction to him is “I am not qualified” to teach him what he asks her, but her Captain nudges her to do just that, so she’s not even acting of her own agency as a naïve ingénue. It sets the relationship off on the wrong foot and it never recovers. In fact, most of what follows screams that she’s not buying what Sarat’s selling, so it’s difficult to feel any sense of betrayal or even sympathy for her plight. She doesn’t believe it, so we don’t either.
Fix It In Post
Accepting that Potemkin is a low-budget affair with short shoots, limited equipment, and largely amateur crews, there are still two places where post-production could vastly improve the show: sound and editing.
The audio is problem numero uno. As I’ve said many times in the Fan Filmmakers Primer thread, “Sound Trumps Picture” and it’s the one thing you can’t skimp on. Regardless of whatever issues were had on the set or on location (cicadas) and with the looping, the clumsy handling of the sound here kills the show. The ambient quality changes throughout. The levels are all over the place. The “room tone” is frequently missing on overdubs. It’s a mess. Fortunately, in many cases, sound is the easiest thing to fix, so the Potemkin team should seriously focus on this in future because improvement just here would vastly improve the perception of their films.
The editing is nearly as serious as issue. It’s functional at best. At worst it actually hurts the performances of the actors.
There’s a possibly apocryphal story about Marcia Lucas cutting Star Wars, where she insisted that part of the problem with early cuts of the film was that the editors were cutting to the actors’ rhythms instead of cutting for pace. On stage that works because the performances play off each other in real time and the actors respond to each other and the audience. In film, where everything is constructed from tiny fragments, typically shot out of sequence and repeated over and over, that doesn’t work. The editor has to determine the tempo of the scene and cut to it. The editor eliminates or creates hesitations and overlaps or separates actions as needed to create that rhythm.
One need look no farther than the fanfim Of Gods and Men to see the truth in this, where professional actors are made to look like amateurs due to bad editorial choices and flaccid pacing.
The opening scene of this episode illustrates the same problem. There are many moments where the cuts could be tightened to create some tension and would actually make the actors performances stronger. I guarantee that a tighter edit here would have made everyone look better.
Beyond impacting the performances, the editing is leaden. Everything moves at a measured, mechanical pace no matter what is happening. Be it a quiet introspective moment or an action beat, there’s never any sense of urgency, no change in tempo, the effect of which is that there’s no emotional weight to anything that happens because it’s all the same: uniform, textureless. Again, this can easily be fixed in the edit bay if someone is willing to put a critical eye to the material and “let the air out.”
Cinematography is at root the most important tool in film and I encourage everyone with an interest in more than dabbling to take the time to learn the basics. Consciously or not, we know the language of film and when you fail to follow its basic grammar you get the difference between pidgin and poetry.
Potemkin has consistently suffered from jump cuts, “crossing the line”, mismatched looks, failure to maintain consistent screen direction, and problems with basic continuity. Actors turn left in one shot, but are turning right after the cut. An actor is behind two others, and is suddenly alongside them. People switch places between cuts. Hands swap places on props. An actor turns left to leave the helm and on the cut is rising to the chair right.
Shots made outdoors frequently suffer from backgrounds that are overexposed while the characters in the shaded foreground are murky. A bunch of white and gray bounce cards would have done wonders to make these shots looks better. Heck, turning on the camera’s “zebra stripes” mode would make obvious when there’s overexposure.
The effect employed for the Preserver ghost is surprisingly effective; it looks like sunlight refracting through something. It works precisely because it’s so simple, conveying a presence without distracting us from what’s being said or from the actor’s performance.
The same can’t be said of the other visual effects in the show.
There’s a lot of effort made here to use VFX to extend the scenery, but it’s another example of reach exceeding grasp. This is not just a problem of the effects being unconvincing (I accept that from amateur productions) but that the flaws in these shots frequently draw attention to themselves at the expense of the drama in the scene. For example, the upper left corner of the background bleeding over Kalv’s shoulder (at 51:50), or the background being in focus when the foreground isn’t, pulling your eye away from the actors, or, most distracting, when the camera moves and the background doesn’t match the move correctly so the background bobs or slides and sometimes even changes aspect ratio mid-shot (53:25), drawing attention away from a key dramatic moment. When the actors are doing their thing, do nothing to detract from it.
While it’s easy to pillory fanfilms for obvious failings we should always bear in mind that it requires a lot of effort and a helluva lot of sticktoitiveness to complete a film of any complexity. At the top of this review I pointed out that this was a stretch for the Potemkin crew, and I have to admire them for making that stretch, even if I think they have a ways to go. But, they’re trying, which is what’s important.
Admiral Kirk’s observation, “We learn by doing,” is as true about filmmaking as it is about humor.
* * *
“The absence of limitations is the enemy of art.”
― Orson Welles
Last edited by Maurice; February 7 2014 at 12:11 AM.
Re: Star Trek -- Project: Potemkin "The Night the Stars Fell from the
Certainly, the critique is hard-hitting, but I think Maurice did a wonderful job of balancing his criticisms with empathy for the problems the producers were up against and there was nothing that I saw that got anywhere close to crossing the line into personal attacks or simple meanness. In my articles for Examiner, that kind of criticism is usually missing for any number of reasons. For one, I do have severe space limitations and I"m not an expert on any particular aspect of producing a TV episode. I applaud Maurice for taking the time to do a thorough, respectful job of critiquing the production and offering thoughtful suggestions on how to improve the show.