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“The Cake and Icing Critique”: a VFX School Technique

As a visual effects supervisor, and now as the owner of a highly successful visual effects school, it is important for me to be able to offer salient, reasonable critique of motion pictures I see, not least because our school focuses on feature film quality visual effects.  Often a class discussion might sidetrack into a debate about the merits of a particular current movie.  Usually the discussion begins with how awesome (or not) the visual effects work of a particular film was and then sidebars into the overall merits of the film.  For example “The visual effects and overall production values were amazing, the art direction was spectacular, but I was bored.”

It is natural, and highly advisable, for people in the film industry to learn to critique films if they have a career plan.  So natural that, even at film professionals’ homes, including mine, discussions often break out about “good” and “bad” work.  We are all at some time guilty of being back-seat directors, designers, actors, writers and even visual effects studios.  Finished films are pretty easy targets, but as long as we keep it respectful, we can learn how to make better films by learning to analyze both great and terrible pictures, and everything else in between. If a film is great, we should try to figure out precisely what makes it great.  If a picture is terrible, we should try to find out precisely what makes it terrible.  Both analyses provide us with knowledge and tools that we can use to make better films.

I have been analyzing and debating motion pictures with friends, family and colleagues for many years.  Then one day I had a son and a daughter.  As they began to grow, they heard me ranting about this film and praising that film.  They were curious about my opinions and in particular the passion with which I often expressed them.  And without the experience for them to tell the difference between, for example, Shark Tale and The Incredibles, it soon became my parental (and professional) responsibility to help my children learn how to appreciate, understand and have an opinion about the relative merits of any given film.  But how to approach this complex subject?  In order to fully understand film critique, my children need to understand it in a way that relates to their world, their minute body of experience and their stage of intellectual development.

Then, one day my son was eating a cupcake with a dollop of icing on top of it almost equal in size to the cake.  It was pretty disgusting to look at.  And the icing wasn’t even sweet.  It was kind of tasteless and greasy.  It was really bad icing.  My son asked to have the icing scraped off so he could finish what was actually a pretty good little cupcake.  The cupcake had actually been ruined by the icing, and if my son had no choice but to eat both, he probably would have declined.

Then it struck me;  This was the perfect way to discuss one way of critiquing a film; a way that would be meaningful to my children.  Here is how I explained it:

“A story is the cake of a story.  It needs all the right ingredients, and those ingredients need to be carefully selected, mixed together in the right order and baked to perfection.  Craftsmanship, experience and knowledge make a great cake. Visual elements like digital or optical visual effects, costumes, sets, and even photography and lighting are the icing.  If you have a really, really great cake, you don’t need any icing at all.  As evidence to support this statement is the continuing success of books, many of which are spectacularly satisfying with no visual elements at all.  But back to movies and their visual icing.  If you have really, really great icing, it can help a bad cake, but it’s still a bad cake.  The icing might get licked off but the cake will probably get left behind on the plate.

“But the proportion of cake to icing is equally important as the quality of both the cake and the icing.  Once again, all cake with no icing can be amazing.  Cake with a thin layer of icing is usually even better, if the icing is even marginally good.  Just the right amount of good cake with just the right amount of good icing makes a blockbuster.  But it doesn’t take much experience to know that if you pile on the icing too high, pretty soon even a great cake will be ruined, even if both the cake and icing are good.  People will want to scrape off the icing to get at the cake.

“Some people believe you can salvage a bad cake by slathering good icing on top.  Maybe.  Some people believe if that doesn’t work, then the answer is to pile on even more icing.  This seldom improves things, and usually makes them worse.”  Remember, when watching a motion picture, you don’t get to scrape off the icing.  It comes together with the cake.  Your only choice is to watch or not to watch.

So when I am talking with my children about a movie we have seen, we often refer to this analogy, and I am very pleased to see how well they can identify good cake from bad, good icing from bad, and a balanced proportion of cake to icing.  Sophisticated they are becoming.

I wonder if we could make this kids analogy mandatory reading for executive producers.