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Critiquing "Godless's" Gun Battle, part 2

This is part 2 of my write-up, discussing the gun battle at the end of the Netflix miniseries, Godless. In the first half, I wrote primarily about the poor handling of an endearing secondary character. For this one, I shall focus primarily on the poor visual effects.

As I stated, earlier, there's no two ways about it: the show looks and sounds like a million bucks—until the much-touted battle at La Belle, that is. Being a miniseries, and not a big-budget film, I suspect certain corners were cut to deal with the lack of substantial funds. You can do a lot with a low budget and a skilled professional behind a camera. Yet, Godless clearly had its heart set on a big finale. This leads me to the miniseries' second shortcoming: the presentation of the battle, itself.




The affair is built-up ahead of time with such repetition as to lead one to think Netflix were about to unveil the Battle to End All Battles. The fact of the matter is, such explosive finales are a staple of the genre. Certainly they've been done onscreen, before, and with bigger budgets and more successful, explosive results. Thus begins my second complaint, stemming from the show's action centerpiece—a centerpiece that oddly enough works much less effectively than everything else in Godless' extensive visual and narrative repertoire.

One thing in particular that leapt out at me was the fire, when the bandits try to raze La Belle. I stared at the blaze used to gut certain buildings, only to notice a distinct lack of actual gutting. The fire, at times, looked too small, too ineffectual to actually burn the saloon down, or the bank. I was left with the impression that it even looked digital, added in post—a fact hidden by having many of these "burning" buildings either a) out of focus, or b) shown in extreme close-ups that display only a small portion of the structure actually on fire; chances are, the rest wasn't.

The entire time, I thought of other pictures, where a set was built, and then destroyed, like in The Long Good Friday (1980) or Conan the Barbarian. In those movies, we see sets demolished onscreen, before our eyes.  A bomb goes off, blasting smoking and glass into the air, showering the windshield of Bob Hoskins' limousine with debris. It's real, photographed, and visceral. No fancy postproduction visual effects or camera tricks needed. Or, Thulsa Doom's palace is razed to the earth by Conan. We see the entire set destroyed—up close and from a distance. Overhead, the twilight sky slowly brightens as dawn arrives. The reality of the shot cannot be challenged.

Alas, such maneuvers are expensive. They take time, coordination, and money. Maybe Godless was short on all three. In any case, I felt like they went to great lengths to actually not burn most of their set to the ground (whereas James Cameron's Tech-Noir disco in The Terminator [1984] took weeks to build and was destroyed in mere moments, during the shoot). Perhaps it was a safety issue. Regardless, it managed, at times, to look both visually-unimpressive and innocuous. I was reminded of The Salvation (2014), an otherwise-excellent Western starring Mads Mikkelsen that was plagued by bad visual effects at the end, concerning the burning buildings during that movie's ultimate and protracted gun-battle. During it, the town is shown to be on fire. The problem is that, whilst the set was solid and real, the flames were not; they looked fake, added in post. In Godless, the fire we see is equally unconvincing.

As previously stated, the makers of Godless address this visual weakness by generally keeping the "burning" wreckage out of most shots. In my opinion, it would have worked better to keep the shots separateof the conflagrations and the actorsthus allowing one to photograph the buildings actually burning. Instead, the makers wanted to go for a "real-time" feel, having much of the fight be on screen, all at once. Alas, there's no way to do this without compromising either the actors' safety or the overall look. They chose to sacrifice the latter. Thus, I was left with the impression of one watching a rock concert with decent pyrotechnics, or an amusement park ride: everything appears to burn, but actually by design can't.

This weakens the illusion that the actors onscreen are in danger. Furthermore, it looks like crap. Again, buildings are either burning in extreme close-ups that hide the fact that most of the building isn't actually aflame; or they are covered with digital fire that is either a) out of focus or b) hidden by a roiling sandstorm that blows in, at the end of the scene. Perhaps the makers were going for an effect similar to the opening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Sand storms are visually exciting but in the case of Godless, they also hide everything. To make matters worse, unlike Close Encounters, the sand isn't even real; in Godless, it's digital.

I suspect, rather than actually try and use wind machines to generate a false storm while La Belle was "on fire," the more practical option was to just add it in post. It still looks bad—a fact further emphasized by how excellent the rest of the show appears. Early on, slow scenes with very little happening look amazing. In the final battle, the whole affair is filmed in wide shots that capture everything (excluding cross-cutting between the heroes and the villains, and other such instances). The downside to this all-encompassing approach is that things have to unfold exactly the way you want them to—from the fire, to the actors, to the wind, itself. Seeing as this is basically impossible without nonexistent budget/time constraints, it essentially forces the aforementioned shortcuts to be taken.

Thus, the sterling visual precedence established early on is the perhaps show's biggest casualty. On the bright side, the battle lasts only about twenty minutes, but the fact remains that I wanted it to last longer and look better. From a visual standpoint, I felt let down. There are other instances of this: When Martha runs down the steps, firing her pistol, I can see her pull the trigger. There's a phony-looking muzzle flare and smoke, but both look added, in post. 

How? Well, here, the gun mechanically  appears to operate: the cylinder rotates, the hammer reaches back and snaps forward. However, there's no recoil, no muzzle climb. Admittedly the trick of "firing blanks" works better with a revolver than with a semi-automatic, whose slide can't pull back on its own; it has to be pushed back by the recoil of the weapon actually discharging. Thus, if you simply add a muzzle flash and smoke to a semi-automatic in post, it will look wrong because the weapon isn't even mechanically operating. As the T-800, in Terminator 2 (1991) said, "Guns and explosives have chemicals, moving parts." You're not going to convince anyone that they're being used unless you actually use those mechanisms—say nothing about recoil's effect on the human body! To be convincing with a semi-automatic, you'll always have to use blanks—even Flounder, in Animal House (1978) used those when he "shot" the horse.




In the case of them doing it with Martha, in Godless, with a revolver, I was shocked. Generally this is a cheap visual effect featured in low-budget action movies like the straight-to-DVD Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle, Pound of Flesh (2015). Perhaps there was simply too much going on to add another element. Perhaps with all the exploding squibs and flying debris, it was simpler to instruct Seidel to run down the steps while squeezing the trigger—with the promise that they'd add everything in post.

There are also shots of her and the bandits—in-frame, together, pointing their guns at one another and firing. So, again, perhaps it's a safety issue. However, I felt like they wanted to shoot it in such a way but weren't prepared to take the risks, with their stars. As someone who deeply regrets Brandon Lee's untimely demise in The Crow (1994) I certainly don't want to lose an actor to an avoidable accident. At the same time, I don't wish to sacrifice visual quality for over-protective safety measures, either. So, I ask, why not shoot the scene in a way that protects the actors and preserves the visual quality of the scene? If done correctly, I believe it's entirely possible to produce a Western that looks good, where the actors aren't actually in danger. 

Alas, in Godless, they wanted Seidel in the shot, in slow-motion, with B-roll footage of her and the bandits in-frame. There's no way to do that with a stunt double because the camera is pointed at Seidel's face, in slow-motion. There's no way to do the B-roll without using blanks... unless they add it all in post. For Seidel, I guess they wanted to be consistent because her revolvers aren't firing blanks in any of the shots. 

What's more ironic is plenty of real-time shots in the show actually use blanks. I would argue that the time to do this trick would be in a shot where there is little time to notice the visual effect—not in one when where you have all the time in the world to spot the mistake! Some special effects aren't trying to look real—think the Wizard running at blazing speed, in The Wizard of Speed and Time (1988); there, the special effects are intentionally drawing attention to themselves. When you want something to look real, this is the last thing you want to do. With Martha's guns not shooting blanks, all of this is opened to extensive scrutiny precisely because it's in slow-motion. It's almost like the makers of the show were challenging themselves, seeing if they could fool the audience for as long as possible in the most naked circumstances. Well, nice try but I wasn't.

The fact remains, physical sets introduce physical dangers. Certainly plenty of actors get injured on set. However, most of the time it's not fatal; it's just them doing their jobs. For a stunt, if the danger is deemed too high, you simply pass the duties over to a stunt person... unless the actor insists on doing the stunt, themselves. Yet, if they do, and you remove all risk through post production visual effects, it can work against whatever attempts have been made to depict the actor in danger, to begin with. I'm not saying you have to put actors in harm's way to such a degree that they risk being seriously hurt; I'm just saying that to entirely remove danger from the set brings with it its own risk: breaking the illusion of movies.

Stories of accidents on set add to a movie's mythos, its entertainment value—the sensation that something real actually happened. For example, Roddy Macdowell's Peter Vincent, in Fright Night (1985), laughs about almost stabbing a co-worker in the chest with his stake, because the mechanism had failed. He laughs because something could have gone wrong but didn't. It's entertaining because it can be laughed about, later. However, there's not much that's retrospectively entertaining about actors staring at green scenes (excluding perhaps Wayne and Garth in Wayne's World [1992] monotonously declaring their "excitement" of being in Delaware).

Granted, you needn't go to such isolating extremes to either a) keep actors safe or b) preserve the production's visual quality. You just have to shoot it a certain way. Think Mel Gibson, in Lethal Weapon (1987) during the firing range sequence:




The camera points at him, as he aims his weapon down range. Then, he fires. As he does, his body shakes from the recoil. The smoking shells spring from the ejection port as he stands next to a fluorescent bulb that a) throws him into relief, and b) illuminates the smoke emanating from the recently-fired weapon. And no one is in danger. It looks good, and everyone is safe. I'd call that a win.

Perhaps, in Godless' case, the visual flaws it exhibits in the final sequence all boil down to time—again, it's simply quicker to do a "safe" take once or twice and call it good. Multiple takes and editing require copious cameras and time to prepare, but given the sheer photographic talent on display I'm thinking time wasn't an issue, as some of those shots also required time to set up, and certainly photographic know-how. Yet, action photography is its own school, very much a different animal from the scenic variety Godless has in spades. Whatever the case, I ultimately believe the look of Godless' big battle boils down to style. In other words, "We want it to look like this." And yet, this style doesn't quite work, but instead sucks out some of the life of what's on screen. To be blunt, much of the battle looks fake.

The question is, did it need to?

In Braveheart (1995), Gibson, as Wallace, leaps from a tower, while on horseback, only to crash headlong into the water, in slow-motion. It looks real because it is. In Godless, a mortally-wounded gunman crashes through an upper-story window astride his horse, and the two smash head-first into the burning ground. Yet, something about the shot looks just plain off—chiefly the inferno they dive into. The show's makers could have taken a different route, but crowding shots with as much action as possible seems to be the modus operandi these days. Had they elected for a more artistic look, with less action onscreen, I for one wouldn't have complained.

The gunfight at the end of Costner's Open Range was just as delayed as Godless' was, as well being longer. However, it looks and sounds much better. Part of the reason why is because there's simply less on onscreen, thus more to appreciate. More isn't always better. Godless illustrates this—that cramming everything into the frame requires a lot of extra steps to be taken that ultimately make the shot less dangerous, more fake, and on top of those two things, simply confusing. I felt like the show inadvertently shot itself in the foot, in the process. This wasn't as much of a problem in the old days, but, then again, back then, green-screen was less advanced; but old Westerns generally had their flaws, too. If they didn't, it was because the makers had larger budgets to work with, and less constraints on time. 

Maybe Godless did, maybe it didn't. Maybe it was choice. In the end, all I can do with any amount of certainty is critique what we're actually shown. In any case, it might seem like I'm being overly critical, here. But the Western is a genre rife with ultimate gun battles. There's so many of them, if one isn't overly critical, how exactly are we supposed to tell them apart?

To conclude, Godless is a wonderful show, despite a somewhat lacking finale (the battle, not the episode). Apart from Stranger Things 2 and The Punisher, it's the only actually-original content from 2017 that's thoroughly grabbed me, from Netflix, thus far, and left me feeling hopeful, instead of discouraged by the unfortunate direction the site has recently taken. Now if we only continued get less trash like The Ridiculous 6 (2015) and more sterling output like Godless, I might feel compelled to actually get off the fence and support Netflix confidently rather than question why I continue to do so, as of now.

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