Sinbad and the Big MacGuffin

I mentioned in the comments previously that Sinbad – Sailor of the Seven Seas might be my least favorite film among those I worked on. I’ve always been pretty good at separating the work from the product — I loved working on Sinbad, and the production was a great experience. I’d been promoted, I was assisting amazing animators (James Baxter and Jakob Jensen), I was getting scenes of my own, the directors and production staff were cool, I was hanging with a great posse of junior animators, the food was free and tasty, life was good all around. But the film? Not so much.

James Baxter ruff of Sinbad with the BoP

I never really bought into the premise of the film, and ultimately neither did the audience. I could go on at length about some of the story and character failings, but I’ll lay out my thoughts on one major problem. It had the biggest MacGuffin in the history of film. Not just a big MacGuffin, but a MacGuffin that needed to be really important to the story. The first rule of MacGuffins is that they are the thing that the characters care about, but the audience doesn’t.

Alfred Hitchcock is usually credited with coming up with the concept of the MacGuffin, and he certainly used it to the hilt in his films. He understood that audiences really care about characters, and especially characters in extreme situations with complex, shifting relationships, and that audiences don’t really care about whatever physical thing it was that drives the plot. We care about the crusaders, their battles, their lives, but not about the holy grail. The Maltese Falcon in the film of that name, or the microfilm in North by Northwest, are examples of MacGuffins — some object that drives the plot and that the characters vie for. The audience, however, is never really going to care about your MacGuffin, and it was to illustrate that concept that Hitchcock invented the derisive term. The audience cares about the characters.

In films with MacGuffins, you can change the MacGuffin to a dozen different things , and the film will work as well (in Pulp Fiction, Samuel L. Jackson’s character has a mystery MacGuffin that is never even revealed, which nicely illustrates how irrelevant it is). Just before filming began on Hitchcock’s Notorious, the MacGuffin was changed from diamonds to uranium. Didn’t matter a whit to the story, which was about two very different men in love with the same woman.

But in Sinbad, the MacGuffin was the Book of Peace, which came with it’s own complex and silly backstory, and which skewed the entire frame of reference for the film. What in the real world is like the Book of Peace, a magical object that guarantees order and peace? Nothing. As a result, we can’t relate to it, and it has to be explained to us.

Explaining your MacGuffin is BORING. On top of that, it’s such a left-field concept that it raises it’s own questions. Why was it even a book, since no one read it? Did it maintain peace, or order? Those are very different concepts. (Eris, who steals the book, was the Goddess of Chaos, not the Goddess of War.) Wasn’t the BoP really some anti-entropy device, because that’s how it actually functioned in the film? Is entropy an idea we want people ruminating on in a fantasy movie? Wouldn’t Sinbad have to be the biggest asshole in the universe to mess with the sole item that maintains the world as he knew it? (Wait, don’t answer that question!)

The whole Book of Peace overlay put the story into the realm of unique make-believe, which might be fine if you’re doing something like Lord of the Rings. But look at how much exposition LotR required for us to understand the power and importance of the Ring and all it’s mythology in that tale — thousands of pages across several books, or a very long film trilogy (actually, four films if we count the upcoming Hobbit).

The early version of Sinbad was actually heavier on exposition, and also had an entire pantheon of gods, of which Eris was but one. Since there’s no room for that in a 90 minute film, most of that exposition, along with all the other gods who gave context to Eris, were cut. Unmoored from that framework, major plot points became confusing.

If Sinbad had been stealing the crown jewels from Proteus, and that theft threated to cause the local society to collapse, the audience would have had a much easier time getting involved in the story. It would all make immediate sense. It would be fantasy firmly grounded in what we know. Creating a BoP didn’t raise the stakes and increase the drama, it merely bounced us into a seemingly arbitrary world we couldn’t relate to, and bored us with extra exposition.

Sinbad gag drawing

So remember: audiences care about characters. They don’t care about props, and they don’t care how amazing and shiny your MacGuffin is. When you’re constructing your story, whether it’s for a single shot for your reel, or a short, or a whole film, if you find yourself getting tangled up in exposition about the things in your story, and not your characters, you need to do some simplifying.

14 Responses to “Sinbad and the Big MacGuffin”

  1. Keith Says:

    Awesome, enlightening and spot on. Another 5 star post, sir.

    ps: I agree about separating the work from the product. It helps you keep your sense of humor and puts things in proper perspective.

  2. toyBunny Says:

    I really enjoy this blog entry. I TOTALLY understand what you mean and fully agree. Thanks for verbalizing it. Can’t wait for your next blog post. Thanks!

  3. Manfred Says:

    Thx for your thoughts about separating the work from the product. There are times when I think Animators are one of the most frustrated people on earth. “Everyone” wants to work on a crazy awesome movie in one of the big studios but just a few will get the chance and the rest .. well .. I can’t remember who told me something that really changed my way of thinking: what ever you do, whatever shot you are working on .. make it your own. don’t do what it takes just to make it work .. do it your way and have fun. Anyways .. thx for one of the best blogs about animation out there!

  4. B Says:

    Aren’t you contradicting yourself? You say the most important thing about a film is the characters, but the reason the film doesn’t work is the macguffin…
    Or were you trying to say that all the exposition and confusion took too much time away from developing the characters on the screen?
    Because that was the problem of the movie for me: I couldn’t care less about any of the lead characters. I didn’t like them, didn’t fear them, didn’t relate to them, nothing. Everything in the movie that tried to go beyond superficial felt fabricated and thus not only fell flat, but was annoying (eg. the whole love triangle, or the friendship between the two, etc).

  5. Alej Garcia Says:

    Your description of the Book of Peace reminded me of this line by Orsen Wells in “The Third Man”:

    “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

    As you say, entropy isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

  6. Sarah Says:

    I thought this film had a cast of characters with plenty of potential and the action scenes were amazing, but I think some problems (apart from the macguffin) was the ever-growing need to market a group of famous voice-actors, and instead of focusing on character development, there was way too much emphasis on CG characters and effects. Traditional feature films were losing that ‘hand-drawn’ look. Look at “Lilo & Stitch”, the voice actors were not huge names and CG was used no where near as much as what you would see in Atlantis or Treasure Planet. It had endearing characters that I (and many people I know), personally cared for. It also brought back the beautiful use of watercolor backgrounds. “Prince of Egypt” is a film I would personally praise with a perfect blend of 2D, CG and big names.
    In a lot of the 2D films that flopped, I think the focus was way too much on incorporating CG ‘things’ with 2D and making it look fancy and ‘grand’ on a cinema screen that most would steer their attention away from the story and characters. I believe story and character growth was sacrificed for fancy effects and graphics. I blame this on the increasing trend of the early 2000’s, moving towards 3D, whilst 2D became less and less popular.
    I love your work Kevin, and your posts, keep it up because you are one of the “true” artists I enjoy visiting online.

    ps – Kevin, what was your opinion of “El Dorado”?? Did you enjoy the ‘work’ and ‘product’?

  7. Ty Elliott Says:

    Well thought through observations, enjoy your blog very much.

    As an effects assistant on Sinbad, I had a great time working there too. The bulk of the work was a lot of tones, shadows and highlights on the characters which was very detailed at times (including a separate tone level for Marina’s eyes). Visually there were some wonderful scenes but all the eye candy in the world won’t matter if the audience doesn’t care about the characters.

    Be well.

  8. Robcat2075 Says:

    I saw Sinbad and enjoyed it. I was so amazed at the animation (like that chick with the transforming hair) that I don’t even remember that there WAS a “Book of Peace”.

  9. Vincent Edwards Says:

    Overall, I totally agree with your insightful observations re: the overarching structure of STORY.

    And yeah, the ‘Book of Peace’ angle was a little tepid.

    But I STILL dug the flick, as I did some other noteworthy B.O. underachievers (Treasure Planet, Prince of Egypt, and Spirit included.) As a dad of 3 I have come to realize that a lot of what “ART” wants is way below the perceptual radar of the younger end of the ‘TARGET DEMOGRAPHIC”, even though as an animation story director I cringe at some of the stupid choices made by studio execs trying to please all of the people all of the time.

    “A successful film is one that makes money”

    Well, Shrek 2 did a half billion at the B. O. and bored me into a coma, so to heck with THAT paradigm for what constitutes quality.

    I’m for an approach that aims lower-budgeted, smartly executed fare at a smaller target audience, satisfies them, and makes a good return on investment. I personally have watched Sinbad at least a dozen times just for the pithy by-play and bitchin’ action sequences.

    It’s tough to be objective about work you may have years of your life invested into; easy to be disappointed by what you feel is an unworthy outcome based on high professional standards and expectations.

    But some folks may persist in liking it anyway…..

  10. alonso Says:

    Interesting as always.
    Something I’m wondering though is how can you use all this film theory to be a better animator? As an animator you’re handed a scene and told what needs to happen, where it needs to start, and where it needs to end, all the pacing and story and staging ideas have already been decided. (you’re entry last January on Shot Flow in Over the Hedge illustrates this perfectly) So unless you’re doing your own, how can you really make use of this knowledge? Or is it just the benefit of knowing the other job’s in the factory, like knowing a little bit about rigging helps you work around fidgety rigs.

  11. Kevin Says:

    Hi, Keith! Thanks for the compliment.

    Thanks, Manfred. Regarding the frustration part, sometimes we do well to take a step back and remind ourselves of what a great job we have. It’s easy to focus on the negatives, but at the end of the day we’re animating for a living!

    B, I don’t think there was any contradiction, and I think you mostly got my point. So much of the story was invested in the MacGuffin that the characters were often required to just “do stuff” to make the plot work, and much of what motivated the characters within the story wasn’t particularly interesting to most of the audience.

    Alej, I’m not surprised that the entropy comment caught your physicist’s eye! I love The Third Man, and that’s indeed a great line (and the line does highlight that the world of Sinbad before the BoP was taken was on the boring side, with a bunch of people sitting around in costume doing courtly things).

    Sarah, I don’t think I agree that part of the film’s failing was because of the need to market big name voices. The story was developed independently of the voices, and some of the key voices weren’t even set until the film was pretty far along in story development and test animation. As for the CG quotient, it was initially planned to be much higher, but turned out to be cumbersome and expensive and was scaled back. I think the problem there was that the CG characters weren’t fun or cool. This was Sinbad, fergoshsakes! We want cool monsters who look you in the eye, and skeletons with swords, and inventive creatures. A big bird and an island that swims didn’t make the grade.

    However, I totally agree that the film lacked some of the intimacy and charm of Lilo and Stitch. You’re right on that anything that takes the emphasis away from interesting characters doing interesting things is a step in the wrong direction. And thank you for the tremendous compliment. 😉 As for El Dorado, maybe I’ll do a post on that film down the road. Briefly, I liked the film better and I loved working Chel, but it too had major problems that I thought were evident from the start.

    Hi Ty. Good to “see” you again, and you’re right on with your comments.

    Robcat, Dan Wagner’s animation of Eris was one of the major bright spots of the film. It was an amazing feat of traditional animation.

    Vince, glad you like the film. I hope I didn’t give the impression that I don’t think there’s any entertainment in there. There is, and the film has a lot going for it. It’s just that the basic premise left me cold from the start, and this was a case where great animation couldn’t save a weak story (and contrary to standard dogma, I think it IS possible for great animation to save a weak story — we just didn’t do it here). I actually thought Sinbad came out better than I expected, but it was still hamstrung by problems like the BoP MacGuffin.

    Alonso, you ask a tough question! For me, these kinds of musings are largely separate from the animation process. I’ve usually been one who has spoken up about these kinds of concerns, and I have a bunch of notes back from Jeffry Katzenberg that proves he does pay attention to the input of the crew, but ultimately we as animators can do no more than respectfully point out what we think are story/character issues, and do the best we can with the scenes we’re given.

    Some of what I’m writing here is for my Animation Mentor class 6 students, because it relates to telling a good story. Some of this is just to add to the global discussion on what makes a great animated film (I like to think some people reading this stuff will go on to become heads of story, directors, etc.). But mostly I just naturally like to analyze how and why films work, or don’t work! But you’re correct in saying that, on a studio production, at some point you put your own ideas aside and pour your energy into animation. There’s probably nothing in this post that will help anyone become a better character animator, but it might help you impress your director when you start talking about MacGuffins at the water cooler!

  12. Sant Says:

    Hey Kevin,

    How’s it going? Will I get to see you at graduation?

    Awesome post and very insightful, and the talkbackers make some great points as well.

    I saw Sinbad a couple times on TV, and I also don’t remember about the Book of Peace, I remember Eris because she was very interesting and attractive.

    I think the film often played on what I think is the “tragicomedy” (that’s the way it was taught to me) structure, in which the characters have a goal and they need to overcome a series of obstacles (monsters or environmental threats) to acheive it. In Sinbad’s case, those obstacles work well on themselves, but not woven together. It feels like “Ok, first this, and then this, and then this”, in some of the best cases it works like this “Ok, first this, but that leads to deciding on this, and that makes this to the character, so how do we deal with this next? Well the character has learned, so he does this and is forced to do that”.

    Meaning that the obstacles are structured alongside the growth of the character. Not just for the thrills.

    Hope to see that post of Road to El Dorado soon… we have to talk about that… hmmmm…


  13. Alan Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    What a wonderful insight. As an animator who never worked in a major studio, I always wondered if the crew has a voice in the development of the story.
    With so many talents working on the film, how could it be possible that that they have forgotten about the character… I guess I understand.
    Quite sad really, like Stan & B, I had no empathy for the characters and felt that the story was just dragging from one action to another.
    By the way, great work on the animation, I really loved the 2D characters… didn’t fancy the CGI sea, they felt very out of place.

    Thanks for the post!


  14. DarlieB Says:

    Hi Kevin.

    Ahh , the secret . One I myself have been so criticized for because it really devalues powerful humanistic drawing and complex eye candy in favor of the character .

    “So remember: audiences care about characters. They don’t care about props, and they don’t care how amazing and shiny your MacGuffin is. ”

    Exactly . They do not care if you draw like Durer or Matisse . The most beautifully animated film means absolutely nothing without the investment of well formed character personality . Sleeping Beauty is probably the most technically beautiful film ever but by the time I get to the part where the prince gets captured in the third reel I’m yawning . I much prefer Dumbo , a far more technically flawed film but one that has ten times the character to me.

    It’s hard for artists to hear that because we have often been paid for the skill of the render. To understand that you can work on something really hard and at the end not be happy totally with the results. Often this is considered “whining ” when really, it is all it is is living with a film for a year and a half . You lose that innocence to view and enjoy without all the personal baggage of knowing the mistakes , inside politics and personally where you failed your own expectations.

    And of course after all that your masterpiece is put in the hands of other people to market it. And not always well. Complex is an understatement in such a massively collaborative effort.

    Great Blog Kev

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch