Character: It’s not the “HOW,” it’s the “WHO”
Howard the Duck showed up at the end of “Guardians Of The Galaxy” for a few seconds, to the delight of cult film geeks like me. There’s no mistaking how awful the 1986 film was, and it’s always a great “bad movie reference” to make. But it’s also a character who’s time has come. With “Guardians” setting the tone for such weirdness, I think it could happen. In a recent interview, George Lucas made an interesting observation that shines light on what is really important when creating a character. Sadly, I think he’s got it wrong.
Lucas said of the original 1986 film, “I told the producer and writer it’s not gonna work. … You can’t put a dwarf in a duck suit and make it work!” He said that the recent cameo in “Guardians” proves the character will be far better received now because, “It’s a digital duck. When you have a digital duck, you can do anything. You can make it act.”
While I could devote a whole blog to the dangerous tendency Lucas has to “make anyone act” with digital manipulation, I find it more interesting that he still doesn’t know why “Howard the Duck” bombed. It wasn’t because the servos in the head of the duck suit couldn’t make the eyes emote properly. It was a BAD MOVIE. Howard was written as an annoying jerk and a whiny wimp. The tone of the film from start to finish missed the target set by the comics, and overall it was just… really silly. But Lucas, like many filmmakers in love with today’s tricks, has forgotten that characters can be wonderful even with the cheapest execution. CGI is amazing, but flawless execution does not make a character great. It’s not the HOW, folks. It’s the WHO.
Who is your character? Where does he come from? What’s her perspective on life and the conflict she has to survive? Is he funny? Is she vulnerable? Are they like us?
To make my point, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit Kermit the Frog. Probably the least impressive execution of a character in 2015. He’s… a felt puppet. You can see the stitches in his head, for Pete’s sake. Yet he is still one of the most beloved characters in the world. Exhibit B: Mickey Mouse (the definition of simplistic design). Exhibit C: Chewbacca (a guy in a suit). Exhibit D: E.T. (another dwarf stuck inside animatronics). Beloved, beloved, beloved!
On the flip side, Howard was one of the most sophisticated animatronic achievements of its day. It’s nice that George is pinning “Howard’s” failure on the writer and producer of the film — the film that also bears his name as Executive Producer. “I told ’em!” But I would actually say they DID make that duck suit work. Very, very advanced execution, resulting in an unlikeable character. When the perfection of CGI came along, well… a lot of characters got worse. Exhibit A: Jar Jar Binks. Why no likey? His CGI was the best in the world.
Now Groot and Rocket Raccoon certainly prove you can have both beautiful CGI and lovable characters. But James Gunn and company didn’t take their eyes off of the “WHO” before they got to the “HOW.” Your character has to be someone you believe is real. And if they are the main character, they should be someone we all want to hang out with. Even if they have bad habits or dirty secrets, they need to be relatable and have lives that mirror our own. That’s when we care. I love animatronics. I love claymation. I love puppets. And when you see a kid’s eyes upon seeing a Disney mascot walk up to them, you know it’s not because it looks so REAL. It’s because that character is a friend. It’s someone the kid KNOWS and understands.
I only share this because I am in the midst of some character building of my own on an animated film and I don’t have $100 Million to do it. So this interview came as a good reminder. I’m not one to knock Lucas as a habit. After all, he is the man who gave us some of the greatest characters of all time. But “Howard The Duck” still remains one of the great lessons in character creation. Don’t worry about the “How.” There are 1000 guys in Hollywood that will figure that part out. There are far fewer people who can get the “Who” right.
(You can read the original story in The Hollywood Reporter here: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/howard-duck-marvel-george-lucas-789746)