Mining the depths of popular cinema, Maron Studio’s Diamonds of Metro Valley plays like an apocalyptic film noir cartoon come to life. Over-saturated reds and greens melt into dreamy shades of charcoal black, creating an effect that feels like a piece of candied celluloid that’s been dropped, its fragments passed through a Technicolor blender, only for the pieces to be placed back together, as if by hand, with their jagged edges not quite aligned. It’s raw and rough. Beautiful. And, yes, bizarre, to be sure, as any film that has flesh-and-blood humans interacting with a giant mecha-gecko and a puppet gorilla for Mayor has the right to be.
The plot? Gangster types in pursuit of diamonds in, um, Metro Valley. But that’s like asking what Star Wars is about: a bunch of misfits rescuing a princess. In space. A plot synopsis couldn’t possibly prepare you for the experience.
Amid a wooden airplane cockpit built to human scale, a green screen, a homemade laser gun, and retro-futuristic model cars made from discarded toys, I was able to chat with the enigmatic duo (a she and a he) known as Maron Studios to talk about their new movie and ask what they see through their kaleidoscope eyes.
Marvin Miranda: I recently described your movie to a friend and when I mentioned I thought it was all done in front of green screen she nonchalantly said, “Oh, like The Spirit,” to which I replied, rather taken aback, “No, not like The Spirit.” In fact, decidedly not like The Spirit at all. It’s definitely very cartoonish, but it feels, no se que, more organic, if you will. I would think that it’s a quality that’s obtained not for a lack of big studio bucks, but because it’s done on purpose.
Maron Studios: Well, we certainly didn’t have big studio bucks. In part, the reason our film looks so different from a Hollywood movie shot similarly is not because of the green screen technique, but because of how our backgrounds were made.
The best way to describe our background plates, environments and the effects of the film are as a “collage” of elements, which include everything from photographs, animation, 2D and video effects. Big budget films are more likely to create backgrounds entirely in CGI, or to shoot a video plate and composite all the elements together, later color correcting and lighting to make it look like it was all shot in actuality. A movie like The Spirit may originate from a graphic novel, but it was still shot for absolute realism. Even though they are going for a stylized look, the environments are still largely “real.” We were not overly concerned with that because we were creating an alternate reality where pretty much anything was possible. The scales, perspective and lighting do not all match in the plates, which also lends artificiality to the overall look.
Even though all our elements are “real,” such as a photograph of a building and a model car, when you combine it with other “real” elements, like a live person, it takes a step even further away from reality. There is no CGI in this film, other than the tools used to composite all of the elements together, and some lighting and color correcting. It is the 2D backgrounds composited together with live action that gives it a uniquely cartoon, real and yet still artificial look. We allow that imperfection to exist by choice, because we like how that specific look lends itself to our projects.
MM: Despite the fact that both the title and the poster I’ve previewed evoke a gritty, crime movie from the ’70s, anyone thinking that this is a straight-up action flick is in for a surprise. Let’s talk about some of the influences and how the story evolved.
MS: We love Bullitt, The French Connection and Vanishing Point. 70’s muscle cars, definitely, obviously. Some other influences include the DOA series and City of Lost Souls, both by Takeshi Miike. What we really like about Miike is how he allows himself to go to really strange, dark and sometimes hilarious places, and those moments are never explained. It’s clearly an incredibly stupid idea to have a lizard robot rob a jewelry store, but in Metro Valley it’s accepted as a brilliant plan.
We also have a soft spot for ridiculous action movies like Armageddon, Aliens, Predator and the original TV miniseries V, as well as 70’s heist films like The Hot Rock. The detectives were definitely influenced by film noir, Hitchcock and classic thriller genres. Another film we were really inspired by is 1980 musical The Apple. We really love the “futuristic” look of the movie, particularly because it’s such a crappy future. The tag line was: “The Power of Rock in 1994” and it was supposed to be the future of the music industry, but it was basically just a bunch of shiny costumes, bad hair and make-up and station wagons with sh** strapped to them.
More so than film influences, are just some of the things that we love. Our collective work has always featured a few elements that continuously reappear like crazy vehicles and guns, masked characters, and the idea of situations where it is fully acceptable that animals in suits are running the show and it is never questioned. Those elements come from personal interests probably more than any outside reference.
We’d be lying if we didn’t admit to being totally excited by the car chase in Matrix 2, and thinking, “What if we made that?! What would it look like?” The story evolved because we decided that we wanted to make a spectacular car chase using only model cars. To have a spectacular car chase, you need a reason to have a spectacular chase, as well as a whole lot of crazy characters involved. We knew we wanted to make a feature length film involving a diamond heist that is pulled off by a mad scientist with a temperamental robot, which was a scenario that would be worthy of the chase and worked from there. All of the elements on screen existed in script from the beginning. This is actually our most scripted project to date.
MM: I remember reading/hearing somewhere, a while ago, that a lot of special effects used in Diamonds were bought from a “library”. Did I dream that up or was that indeed the case? If I didn’t dream that up, can you talk about what that’s all about? Is that something that’s available to anyone or are we talking about some black market deals, “Psst, hey, man, I’ve got some Avatar explosions real cheap. How many you want?” If I did dream it up, never mind…
MS: You did not just dream that up at all! One of our biggest resources for background imagery was the Prelinger Library in San Francisco. The Prelingers are amazing people. They have a physical library of over 40,000 public domain books, maps and image sources on practically every subject matter. We traveled to San Francisco armed with a hard drive and a digital camera and spent two full days in their library loft scanning and photographing images. Essentially, we built our own database of imagery that we were able to draw on to create our backgrounds from. It was an incredible resource for us that saved us so much time. Nothing we scanned was used out right, though. Everything was manipulated, and the reason the Library was so great for us is that they have so many design and architectural books. So we scanned pages of 1970’s carpet and tile samples, lamps, furniture, buildings, you name it, and we created our own world from those elements. And yes, the library and archive that the Prelingers run is accessible to everyone! No dirty dealing here.
We also utilized some stock footage resources that we did pay for–for specialty effects like bullet hits, explosions, fire elements and the like. The places we love are Detonation Films, Video Copilot and Art Beats. They are tremendous resources that enable people making movies with little to no budget to achieve big screen effects.
MM: Does it seem to Maron Studios that Hollywood filmmakers are indeed pushing themselves when it comes to originality and aesthetics? Because you guys seem to ingest Hollywood but spit out Diamonds.
MS: We actually feel like there is plenty going on in Hollywood that we enjoy, like and that influences us. It’s sort of easy to bash Hollywood originality, because there is plenty that is repetitive, to be sure. But clearly, there is something out there for everyone. It’s hard to quantify creativity, success and failure. A movie can make several million dollars in an opening weekend, and be considered a “failure.” That’s fairly common–but that’s not necessarily a filmmaker’s lack of creativity. Hollywood is a business, first and foremost. It’s about making money, and that can certainly stifle creativity.
People like what they like, and we’d be lying here to say that we don’t enjoy guilty pleasure popcorn fests. A movie is entertainment, it’s about forgetting yourself, and we are honestly not one to judge what gets someone else’s rocks off. One of our all time favorites is Aliens, and we embrace it because of its corny dialogue and stereotyped military characters, not in spite of them.
We actually embrace the entertainment value of Hollywood, but that said, don’t want to emulate a formulaic piece of crap. We see what we enjoy, decide what we want to make, and then put our visual stamp on it. We aren’t just making an “action” movie, because we really wouldn’t be able to make a flat out action movie. We are influenced by the formula of a narrative, but the visual style of our projects come from influences outside of Hollywood. We both have formal education in fine arts–sculpture, painting, photography, performance–both traditional and non-traditional. We’ve been influenced by artists like Yayoi Kusama, Takashi Murakami, Sandy Skoglund, Matthew Barney, Mike Kelley and the performance group Kyupi Kyupi. The reason we take in James Cameron and spit out Diamonds of Metro Valley is because we both have spent years thinking about visual style, and thinking about “art” as “entertainment”, rather than just entertainment as entertainment.
MM: I would think that if you’re an independent studio/filmmaker, it’d be easier (not to mention almost critic-proof) to write a script about a bunch of people hanging out and talking in someone’s living room or something. How difficult is it, as independent filmmakers, to try to make something that’s completely out there?
MS: Filming people talking in a living room would certainly be easier. The challenge in making a film like that would be finding or writing an amazing script that hasn’t been done a thousand times already. As far as we are concerned, we would have never considered making a movie like that, because for one, it’s not our style, and two, we prefer to go epic and to challenge ourselves. We’ve always come at it from the standpoint that we’d make a movie that we’d want to see and not limit ourselves to what we could “afford” based on location.
It was more about, “If we like it other people will too.” And what we like are explosions, action, guns, chases, drugs, babes and giant lizard robots that can drive cars. The true difficulty comes from trying to figure out how to make the effects you want with hardly any money. The last thing we’d ever want to make is a movie with people sitting around talking, because that’s sooo boring. Why make something that has been done a hundred times? when it’s far more fun and interesting to problem solve all possibilities rather than limiting oneself. Being forced to use your imagination to make what you want to see is the fun part and that’s where real innovation lies. We couldn’t blow up a car in actual, and didn’t have the desire to completely construct it in CGI, so the solution was to use model cars, break them apart, use monofilament wire to fly parts past the camera and then composite it together in After Effects and add some fireballs.
When you make your own objects and your own film, the entire piece ends up with a very distinct look. Something we consistently hear from people, is that they have “never seen anything like” the films that we make. For better or worse, that is exactly the kind of thing we want to hear.
Diamonds of Metro Valley has just been released on DVD. To purchase a copy: http://www.diamondsofmetrovalley.com/store.html
To get a taste: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmygOxd7ReQ
For more info: www.diamondsofmetrovalley.com