One-D-Six: Directing Monsters the Spielberg way

In the latest podcast I have advocated that Dungeon Masters should adopt a “Spielberg’ approach to directing monsters, rather than Peter Jackson’s method. I’ve been asked a pertinent question: that’s all very well, but how do you codify it?

I have attempted to channel my inner Robin D Laws to pick out the dramatic beats that Spielberg uses so they can be adopted into an RPG session.

Strictly speaking, Spielberg has directed three monster movies; Jurassic Park (1993), its sequel Lost World (1997) and the best of them all, Jaws (1975). It seems like he’s done more, because he incorporates these techniques into the characterisation of objects and people in other films he’s directed: in Saving Private Ryan (1999) the tank is portrayed as a lumbering T-Rex and the malevolent truck in Dual (1971) is as relentless as a great white shark.

Here’s some quick thoughts on what I meant by ‘directing monsters the Spielberg way’ and some suggestions on how they can be built into your games. The key device is ‘suspense’ which is part of the grammar of film, but difficult to replicate in games, however I believe that it’s still possible to inject the creeping anticipation of jeopardy in the most world-weary, jaded gamer with the application of Spielbergian tactics …

1.FORESHADOW HOW NASTY THE MONSTER IS …

The oft cited reason for players becoming jaded with monsters is the meta-gaming knowledge of what the monster is capable of and its vulnerabilities. “Everyone knows what to expect, where’s the thrill in that?” Long term players can no longer get excited about the prospect of a band of goblins because they’ve killed them a thousand times before.

However, Speilberg uses this meta-knowledge to share with the audience the potential threat of the creature, so they can anticipate it’s appearance. If a monster has a special attack, a strategy of combat or vulnerability then there’s no harm in revealing it to the players, as it will sharpen their thinking.

Include an NPC with a Cornish-American accent to tell  stories of previous encounters, how armies have been eaten by the creature, exaggerate the size … “from the dorsal to the tail” and it’s capacity to kill.

2.MAKE MONSTERS FEEL LIKE PHYSICAL ENTITIES

Both Jackson and Spielberg owe a debt to Ray Harryhausen, a monster auteur who was so dedicated to his creations that he left the direction of humans to others. His stop-motion method used physical models, painstakingly moved frame by frame, which gave the creations a sense of gravity which is sometimes lacking in Jackson’s monster films. Due to limitations of the technology, Harryhausan depended upon the suggestion of the potential of his monsters through sound effects and partially concealed glimpses.

Never wholly convinced by CGI, Spielberg adopts a similar approach, choosing to mix computer animation with animatronic puppets. In addition, Spielberg is masterful at combining sound and subtle visual effects to add weight to the creatures: the ripples in the cup as the T-Rex approaches, the click-click-click of the Velociraptors claw on the tiles, and the movement in the water of the shark in Jaws.

In game, it’s useful to pepper the approach of a monster with similar techniques to tantalise and tease the players’ senses: the acrid smells, the distant rumble, the displaced dust and the euphoric screech as it enters the scene.

3.DUMMY DECOY … THERE’S ALWAYS SOMETHING WORSE

Once you’ve established the creatures’ abilities by foreshadowing, it’s possible to use ‘dummy’ effects to rattle the players: a rustle in the long grass, a silhouette through the tent, or a cardboard dorsal fin.

There’s always deniers who have a vested interest in ensuring the status quo is restored and the disruption caused by the monster is resolved. What if they’re wrong? What if the monster they caught isn’t the monster that’s causing the trouble?

4. THEY’RE RELENTLESS, LOOK FOR COVER!

Arguably, Spielberg created cinema’s first relentless, faceless terror in Dual (which was actually a TV movie, but you know what I mean) it’s a trope that has been repeated often by many filmmakers since.

Characters in Spielberg’s movie are more prepared to run away than the average RPG player character, nevertheless, there’s always occasions when they may reach for a place of safety, a place of safety that can only resist the terror for a certain length of time, before the horror is going to break through.

The monster tipping over the wagon, pushing it to the edge of a cliff, breaking through the defences, the weather isn’t helping either … when will it end?

5. TO DEFEAT A MONSTER, YOU HAVE TO BECOME A MONSTER …

Robert Shaw* as Quint in Jaws, Bob Peck as Muldoon in Jurassic Park in some ways, have characteristics of the creatures that they’re trying to defeat. It’s a trope that Spielberg uses in Schindler’s List (1993) too. Liam Neeson’s Schindler is a counterpoint to Ralph Fiennes’s Amon Goth.

What if the monsters have some of the characteristics of the player characters. The same spells? A mirror of the attributes and skills of the player characters?

6. SOMETIMES, SET-DRESSING IS OK …

There are times when you need to have vistas of monsters with John Williams music while monsters stampede, act out rituals, or just make the place look colourful.

 

* Robert Shaw is from round our way

 

2 thoughts on “One-D-Six: Directing Monsters the Spielberg way

  1. An excellent, thought-provoking article – thank you Dirk. Jurassic Park is an excellent example of how to get the maximum bang for your monster buck.

    One other film that occurred to me which also hits many of the narrative beats you identified is The Thing by John Carpenter. Consider:

    Foreshadowing: MacReady and the team get an early warning of what they’re up against when they visit the Norwegian base. Indeed, they even see the results of the nightmarish attacks in the (indistinct) shape of a twisted amorphous corpse. But it’s OK, because it’s now dead, right? Right?

    Physical monsters: made well before the advent of CGI, Rob Bottin’s amazing monster effects certainly have a keen physical presence – there’s a real weight behind those pseudopods and “surprise” maws. For my money, 34 years later, this film still hasn’t been surpassed for bringing Lovecraftian ickiness to life on screen. (I’ve not seen the 2010 prequel – does it use CGI?)

    Dummy decoy: the blood testing scene. Something bad’s about to happen! No, nothing, false alarm. SOMETHING BAD’S ABOUT TO HAPPEN!! Sorry, no, wrong again. Maybe there’s nothing to worry about after AHHHHHHH…

    Relentless: you can fight, you can run, but it doesn’t make that much difference – man is still the warmest place to hide.

    Whoever fights monsters: the counterpoint to the monster mayhem in this film is the mounting tension and paranoia within the research team, which turns out to be as potent a threat to the survival of the team as the monster itself. And this is carried through right to the film’s ambiguous conclusion. As MacReady and Childs sit in the ruins of the base, waiting for the inevitable end, neither is sure they can trust the other. And it appears that the breath of only one of them is condensing in the cold…

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