Talk Description to Me

Episode 116 - Spy Movie Tropes

August 06, 2022 Christine Malec and JJ Hunt Season 4 Episode 116
Talk Description to Me
Episode 116 - Spy Movie Tropes
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Spy movies are perfect for Audio Description. There are subtle clues to describe, exotic and seedy locations to expound on, and often great visual storytelling for the Describer to work with. But what about those moments that whip by too fast for the AD Narrator? Today, Christine and JJ break down the visuals of spy movie tropes: gadgets, lairs, disguises, hacking, and tracking. 

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JJ Hunt:

Talk description to me with Christine Malec and JJ Hunt.

Christine Malec:

Hi, I'm Christine Malec.

JJ Hunt:

And I'm JJ Hunt. This is talk description to me, where the visuals of current events and the world around us get hashed out in description rich conversations.

Christine Malec:

Several episodes ago, we talked about movie posters. And that was a classic example where I didn't know what I didn't know. And JJ was surprised by some of the things that I didn't know. And it kind of led to talking more specifically about different types of tropes in cinema. And so in general terms, I would say that a trope is kind of like an artistic cliche, that gets reused, because everyone understands what you mean by it at it, and it conveys a certain vibe. And so what we're going to talk about today is kind of specific. It's spy movie tropes. And so this covers, films, you know, like the giant James Bond enterprise, or Jason Bourne are those kind of John lecarre. A, that the classic spy movies? And here was a classic example of what I didn't know. And okay, it's not a genre that you know, that I follow closely. But I think when you're watching it with audio description, II, there's a ton of stuff they can't explain just because there's no time. So there might be, you know, she breaks into the apartment, well, how does that happen? Or he hacks into the computer system and what what does that actually look like? And so, there's so much to break down here that, Judy, where do you think we should start? Because there's, there's just a lot and I like I said, I'm ignorant, so I'm not really sure. Maybe we can start actually, maybe we can start with the lair? The evil lair, James Bond is a good place to start here. And I'm just going to tell a little anecdote because this is why I'm not interested in spy movies. I thought, okay, James Bond is so popular. It's great, everyone, you know, it must be worth something. So I think I picked the first James Bond movie, we're like, this won't be too violent. It'll be a good introduction. There's a scene where he walks into his hotel room, big suspense moment, he's peering around, there's something big is obviously going to happen. He spies have a picture on the wall, he goes and moves it. And there's a camera, they're like, Wow, that was a lot of build up for something that's pretty lame nowadays. And I went, I just not invested here. I'm not gonna. So this stuff must change a lot to write.

JJ Hunt:

Oh, yeah, the Bond stuff. I mean, the bonds been going on for so long. And it's funny, a lot of our trips that we have now can date back to these early Bond movies. The idea of the sexy spy, you know, a spy that uses their sexuality to, to, you know, to get ahead. All of those types of things, the gadgets, all the bond loved the gadgets, not the first one to use them, but like really solidified a lot of these things as the Canon as tropes in this spy genre, but yeah, the layers, the bond layers, not all spy movies, like I don't think Jason Bourne ever visited a layer. But certainly within the Bond franchise, the idea of the layer is massively influential. So these layers in Bond films, one of the things that makes them distinctive, it from a design point of view is the fact that they are modernist in design. So these are modernist or brutalist spaces, open spaces, steel and concrete construction, very clean lines, very smooth, not a lot of ornamentation, very cold, very officious. There were elements of nature that are built into modernist design, but they're usually they're contained elements of nature to the very mid century idea. And so that aesthetic is kind of now very, very strongly associated with Bond villains. So like a couple of examples in Dr. know, there's this Crab Key layer and this layer is basically a luxury spa with poured concrete walls, copper plated doors, there's a giant aquarium that's carved out of a stone wall and and a huge nuclear reactor room with exposed catwalks that support they're supported by like the square Angular columns in Goldfinger, Goldfinger has a modernist farmhouse. It's got a glossy plank wood walls and a slanted ceiling. There's a hidden control console and a monumental fireplace with a stainless steel hood and a retractable floor. So you've got some of the you know, the retract ability and the hidden control console. But you've got, you've got some natural materials like the plank woods that slanted ceiling, Angular, Angular, Angular. And then of course, I think the most famous of the layers is Blofeld is volcano lair from You Only Live Twice. This is just an enormous cavernous space. from floor to ceiling. The actual set was over 10 storeys tall, I mean, enormous. The interior has false rock walls with concrete buttresses and a concrete floor again, a retractable roof. It actually was big enough that it had a working monorail in there at the actual helicopter landing pad, and a full scale stainless steel rocket on a launch pad. So again, like lots of these, like the steel and concrete construction, open spaces, Angular, Angular Angular, it's not really a spy movie more of a thriller. But the this killer layer in Ex Machina, have you seen Ex Machina? No, no, really the good film, most of that film takes place in a very remote, ultra modern layer that's owned by this genius, perhaps evil billionaire, so not really a spy movie, but a lair that is very much in the James Bond mold.

Christine Malec:

And spies get the best tech even back to Maxwell Smart's shoe phone.

JJ Hunt:

That's right! The Shoe Telephone. I loved that shoe telephone.

Christine Malec:

It will never never die. I don't know if maybe it's because we're too old. But that that trope just will never die

JJ Hunt:

It's so fantastic. I mean, I think the first time it was used, he's in a movie in a theater, he sings a piece of theater a plays going on, and this phone rings and it's like an old fashioned phone ringing like it's not like a subtle is Greg Ring, ring, ring ring. And so excuse me and he gets up and walks away, goes into a closet or something like that takes off his black leather loafer pulls the soul off and the entire bottom of the shoe is a telephone. It's got a little like a little the dial thing not the punch buttons, the rotary rotary earpiece, it's huge. It's just huge. The funny thing about this is I did some description work for the International Spy Museum in Washington a few years back. Oh, and they actually have a shoe from the 1960s that has a kitten microphone and transmitter, like tucked into the heel of a brown leather loafer. So there are versions of this tech that actually did get used in the spy world. It was so absurd.

Christine Malec:

Wow. Are there some other classics of tech I guess James Bond again is the one to mine for that.

JJ Hunt:

James Bond and the watches. I think that like that in terms of like the James Bond watch gadgets are in in the Roger Moore eras is that's when they really went. They went crazy with this idea. So Roger Moore had watches with magnetic field generators, buzz saws, teletype machines, dark guns, explosives, two way radios tracking devices, even a TV I mean that one seemed a little far fetched. I mean, a TV and a watch. Come on. That's absurd.

Christine Malec:

Unlike everything else.

JJ Hunt:

Ha! The teletype machine it's a digital Seiko looks like a stainless steel watch. Little digital face and then coming out of the top of it is a very very thin, white like ribbon of paper with you know teletype printing on it like be aware it'll blow so hilarious. The buzzsaw watches the other one I like it's a it's an analog watch. I think it's a Rolex and right around the outside edge of the of the round watch face are very very tiny but clearly sharp saw teeth that you can start the the watch is spinning and all around you know this is like what half an inch a quarter of an inch above your wrist. This little busta buzzsaw starts spinning,

Christine Malec:

Right? I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

JJ Hunt:

What could go wrong? So funny. Mission Impossible uses a lot of good gadgets to I can't remember which one of the Mission Impossible films it was they use a flute gun. So this is a silver flute again, there's like a the scene takes place. There's an orchestra and Tom Cruise gets his hand on a flute gun. So looks like a silver flute with all the keys on it and it's got to build in scope, and it costs like a pump action shotgun. And then the whole flute gets used like a rifle. But from the outside, it looks like silver flute. So bizarre, then there's the the climbing gloves is another great Mission Impossible gadget. So these climbing gloves are a take on the classic suction cup glove, where, you know, if you want to climb on the outside of a building, you basically have gloves with suction cups on the palms and your pop, pop, oh, work your way up a building. This is a digital version of that these are black gloves that go up to the elbow, and they have electric blue trim along every finger. And then on the back of the hand, there's a digital display to let you know that the gloves are working. So if the gloves are working, you've got like three lines like a like a Wi Fi signal, the three lines in this like electric blue color to tell you that you're there working. But then if it's not working, those three lines go to red if it runs out of batteries. And that little bit of visual display is there. So not only does the character know if they're working or not, but the audience knows that they're working. So when the character slaps their palm against the glass, as long as it lights up blue, you know that it's sticking, if it doesn't light up blue, then there's this sound effect that's associated with so you slap your hand against the wall that lights up blue, and there's that high pitched charging noise, then you know that it's working, it's sucking the hands against the wall. If it turns red, you don't get the sound effect. And it's not working. But without that without those little bits of visual, you know details, then it's just a scene with Tom Cruise slapping is like elegant gloves against the glass wall, the whole scene falls apart. Without those tiny little details is so key. Jason Bourne, the Bourne films, he was quite anti gadget, mostly what he uses in his spy work are their everyday objects, right, like pencils, he stabs people with pencils, he beats people with books. But what he did have was is a really great monocular. So it's like a very small, like the size of a pocket flashlight fits in the palm of your hand. And and that he uses to like, you know, you know the scan, scan the scene or see someone far away, that's about the only gadget otherwise, it's like drop phones and whatever's lying around that he can weaponize.

Christine Malec:

Um, let's talk a bit about cinematography and starting maybe specifically with viewpoint because I'm assuming that given the genre, there's lots of camera shots that involve looking at someone who doesn't know you're looking at them from a distance. Is that right?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah. So you do get a lot of those either first person or often first person seen through some kind of device. So you'll get either first person seen through, like a security camera, right? So what is the security camera picking up? That's what's put on screen? What's the point of view through the monocular? That's what's on the screen, or did you know lots of kinds of digital binoculars and whatnot. So when that's the case, the image quality changes. So if it goes to like a closed circuit TV camera, the image goes to this very grainy, black and white. If you're looking through a digital binoculars, for example, it'll often go green. So this is night vision. So everything is presented in green light. So you get those kinds of First Person things that are happening. It's really interesting. I mean, the cinematography and spy movies is, it's very well established how a lot of these scenes play out the Jason Bourne films, really, they kind of shifted the way these spy movies are, were turned into action movies, and the speed with which they were presented. The editing is very, very fast in these films. But spy movies in general, work really well on film. Because, first of all, film does subtlety very well. And spy stories are full of subtle moments. Right? Novels are great for subtlety TVs, okay, theater is very tricky. You don't like what was last time you saw a good spy play doesn't really work. Film is perfect, because spine stories are are filled with small moments, right? Like the drama of using a dead drop, or following someone or exchanging glances. The way you cut from one person to another. You can do on film in a way that you can't do on theatre. You can direct the audience using your edits using your shot sequences. So spy stories often require really good visual storytelling. Because like you said, you're watching someone watched someone else and So you need to, as a director, get the audience to follow those moments who's looking at who How does that make them respond or react. It's a, the sequencing of your shots is really important. So spy stories require, I mean, they can be a really interesting and very cool challenge for a describer. But if the storytelling is strong, and the description is well done, I think spy movies are brilliant when they're described, because there's often a very linear path through the scenes that are packed with spy craft. And it's a really great way to kind of, you're laying out all these bread crumbs to put a scene together. And plus the sound design in spy movies is fantastic, great for building tension and so forth. I really like spy movies as described films.

Christine Malec:

Yeah, I can see how storytelling becomes super important because as the describer, as you say, it's a trail of breadcrumbs and an an unobservant sighted viewer could miss stuff just because they're not observant and they miss clues but as a describer. It's kind of your job to to draw a subtle attention to that. I'm wondering about the use of disguise and can we start with a trench coat? Am I right that that's a classic of spy movies, can we just describe a trench coat?

JJ Hunt:

Totally that oh, that trench coat so long. Usually, the classic trench coat was a was like a beige color, you know, all the way down to possibly the ankles, certainly to mid calf often belted around the waist, big wide lapels, sometimes some pocket, sometimes some flaps on the shoulder. But the great thing about a trench coat is you can pop the you can pop the collar up, you can pop the lapel up, so it hides your face, you pull your Fedora down low, and now your quote unquote hidden. I mean, the problem with the trench coat is itself became such a trope that it's like, Oh, you want to look for the spy look for the guy dressed like a spy, right? This is where disguise is really interesting because with disguises in real life and in movies like The Bourne films. What you want to do if you're wearing a disguise is blend in. That's for the most part. That's unless you're talking about a specific trying to look like a specific person. When you're disguised, you're just trying to not be you you're trying to blend in. So born is very good at this born wears normal clothes, dull colors. Often a basic like baseball hat, no team logo or anything on it just a blank baseball cap, nothing that's easy to identify. And that way, Jason Bourne can move around in whatever environment he needs to because he blends right in. And then if you need to escape, you ditch the you ditch the hat and you ditch the jacket. And then you can blend in again, it's amazing how shockingly effective this is visual, like, both in these films. And in real life. If you've been identified as a guy in a red hat in a blue jacket, and then you remove that Red Hat and blue jacket, you can easily slip past people who are scanning a room or a video feed looking for someone in a red hat and blue jacket, because that's not who you are anymore. And in that moment, you can get away and and I got to say as a parent who has scanned crowds for kids, it's really effective. If you've got a dog you put it like a you know we always put very distinctive like sun hats on them if we were going to a beach or a park or something like that. Because then in the crowd, all you look for is that hat, you're not looking for your kid, you're looking for that hat and then you can find but if they take that hat off, you're lost because that's that's what you've that's what you're anchored on to.

Christine Malec:

What is a balaclava?

JJ Hunt:

Ah, okay, so a balaclava is like, like a woolly hat material like a to cut material and knit hat, usually black, but instead of just sitting on top of the head, kind of over the ears and across the forehead, it pulls all the way down, and it covers the entire face. And there's usually a hole cut out for each eye, and then a hole cut out for the mouth. And that's it. It goes right over the nose. It covers the entire rest of the face. So a balaclava is often used in in scenes where, you know, you're robbing a bank or something like that you pull one of these things on, you can still speak you can still see through them. But but everything else is covered by this usually black knit hat.

Christine Malec:

How about an evidence board? This was a phrase you used in a different context, and I just had nothing I'd never even heard of it.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, the evidence board is a classic. A lot of like CIA analysts or you know, crime scene, investigators will use the evidence board. So it's generally except sometimes it's a white board or something. But usually the classic is the cork board. And you put up pieces of evidence like photographs. and maps and maybe even like an evidence baggie, which I don't think you would actually really do in a crime scene, but they appear in these in movies and whatnot. And then all of these individual pieces of evidence are linked together with string. So you tie like a picture of a person to a map that's got a bunch of, you know, stickers or pins in it to identify places, and you link that to a string, and then tie that to another person's mug shot, and then tie that to a piece of Evet, whatever. And that's a connection. And then you do that somewhere else, where you take another photograph, and you take some kind of photo that's been taken in a crowd situation like, and then you, you link those ones. And you tie that to another piece of evidence. And that's how you build a web of, of evidence to link a complicated set of characters and pieces of evidence. And this is usually presented when either a person or an investigator or a spy, or someone is brilliant, and is able to deduce all of these things and hold all of these things in their mind all at once. Or sometimes it's kind of the opposite, where a person's gone over the edge. And, and they're in there chasing conspiracy theories, and they're in there finding links, where there really aren't any. So it can be used to convey both of those things. But visually, it is, it is an absolute trope that, you know, these all of these different things. And if you zoom in on them, it's funny, a lot of the, like, folks who do break down videos on YouTube and whatnot, I know for that, like there was a Batman, there was an evidence board and the most recent Batman film, and if there was a quick shot of it in the background of a trailer, and and all of the YouTubers who are into breaking down these trailers, they focused in on that, because they were able to deduce things about the how the film was going to unfold, based on what was included in this evidence board and like a half second shot in the trailer. Yeah, there's a ton of information packed in there.

Christine Malec:

Is there still a place for maps in spy films?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, there is. I mean, I think in part because it's, um, they're, they're great visual aids, they're great tactile things, right. So you can put a map on an evidence board, and you can, you know, track things from point A to point B, often as like, as someone like Jason Bourne will be in a new place that they've never been before. They'll grab a map, or they'll even pull up, there's, I think it's the very first one, he's escaping the embassy, and he rips the map off of the wall of a building, like you are here kind of map, rips that off so that he can figure out his escape route through the building. So there's no, that's good, both for the characters, it's good within the story. But it's also a good bit of visual to tell the audience what's going to happen. If you see a character with a map, and you might get a sense of the landscape, you might get a sense of what the building looks like, even though you're only seeing a shot of one hallway. Now you get a shot of this map, and you're like, oh, there's an exit. There's a staircase that leads up to you know, what I mean? This is a great way to convey a lot of information to, to folks who are watching the film very, very closely.

Christine Malec:

And how would a character break in to something how is that achieved?

JJ Hunt:

The classic with the lock picks, you often hear he picks the lock. Yeah, usually lock picking tools. Let's see, there's usually one piece of very, very thin metal that goes in and it's there to, to slowly push the keys on the inside, I can't remember the name of the the gadgets on the inside, but it slips in and it very slowly, jiggles the, whatever the mechanism on the inside, and then there's a second piece of metal that you slide in beside that, and you move it up and down. So you generally a lockpick as a lockpick set has two items, very thin pieces of metal, one that is slowly pushing in and the other one that is kind of jiggling up and down so that you can get the little I can't remember the name of the little toggles or whatever on the inside, to move up and down in the same way that the pattern on a key would get them to move. So usually it's two handed work with with if it's done remotely accurately, with one object slowly being pushed in and the other one being slowly jiggled up and down. That's kind of the way that's pick but a lot of that stuff now is done on computers, but the computer has to do it you have to break into a room I'll get you access and whoever it is on the computer side of things. That's some of my favorite the visuals of the computers. In, in spy movies, the stuff that's popping up on screen is often ridiculous. It's not like hacking, see, I'm going to break into the building. And then you know, they do whatever on the computer. And you know that in real life, the back ends of programming is not visually interesting. It's not designed. But in films, all of that stuff is designed. It's designed to look pretty, and it's designed to look clean and clear.

Christine Malec:

So is it graphics, then?

JJ Hunt:

A lot of graphics, custom graphics.

Christine Malec:

Totally unrealalistic.

JJ Hunt:

Absolutely unrealistic. So a sighted audience member is going to know what's happening based on the visuals of what's going on on the screen, instead of just looking at someone typing very quickly and a bunch of numbers flying by their screen, and then they say I'm in because that's boring. So the visuals try and make that more. So sometimes a hacker will break into a system. And there's a literal 3D map that the hacker zooms through. Like it's a labyrinth of glowing green, or blue walls and paths, like you're entering the matrix.

Christine Malec:

Right, right.

JJ Hunt:

It's ridiculous. That doesn't happen as much anymore. I think that doesn't read as realistic to too many people. The other thing that happens a lot are these big labels. Like if you know, if they hit a wall somewhere in the computer, a big label, again, with full graphics and nice border really like a very distinctive font will say unauthorized file transfer or something like that. I don't know if that's actually how that works. In real, I've never really tried to steal a file from the CIA.

Christine Malec:

Come on... heh heh.

JJ Hunt:

So I don't really know if that's how that looks. Heh heh. The other thing I love are file names that

Christine Malec:

Not that you'd admit to. are really easy to catch at a glance. So if someone is hacking into a system, and they're scrolling through the audience should have, there should be some possibility that an audience member can read a handful of these file names and see what's important. So you know, someone will be scrolling through a list of file names, and a lot of them will be labeled CIA, like CIA operatives, 2019.

JJ Hunt:

"Oh, that's the file I want! I don't know... And then

Christine Malec:

Right! Ha ha ha. the file counters or the progress bars, so things are being transferred onto a memory stick. There's lots of that right. Someone breaks in, you put a memory stick and you get Right, right, right. into the computer. Yes, there are always progress bars on everyone's laptop. But again, some of these progress bars are huge, or the digital countdown of how many files or folders have been moved from the desktop to the to the memory stick, or it's like it takes up a quarter of the screen and has a sound effect. Boop, boop, boop, boop, boop, boop, boop, boop,

JJ Hunt:

Never happens. That never happens. The other tech thing on screens that I really love, it's quite hilarious is it's sometimes referred to as"Enhanced that!" because that's a phrase that you'll hear a lot. So say Jason Bourne is walking through a crowded train station. And in the CIA control room they're watching on their security monitors, right, they've hacked into the security monitors of the train station, the security cameras, the train station they're watching and you know, from 100 feet away, the camera spots some like something suspicious, and this black and white security camera, Tommy Lee Jones yells enhance that, and someone presses a single button, and a perfect picture of Jason Bourne resolves on the screen. There's no such enhance button. There are ways to enhance digital images.

Christine Malec:

Right, right.

JJ Hunt:

Certainly, there are ways to to make an image cleaner or crisper or sharpened or whatever. But there's not a single button you can press that will turn a piece of CCTV footage that was filmed 100 feet away into a like a headshot with the press of a button. But we love that stuff. "Enhance that!"

Christine Malec:

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James Bond's Lairs
Gadgets
Cinematography
Disguises
Evidence boards
Maps
Lock picking and computer hacking