Things We Like: The Smashing Pumpkins, MACHINA/the machines of God

16 years ago, on February 29, 2000, The Smashing Pumpkins released a thundering powerhouse of an album, the gargantuan and gonzo MACHINA/the machines of God.

Smashing Pumpkins Machina

It was the Mad Max: Fury Road of albums, a monumental epic that roared wildly along alt-rock’s highway, knocking everything out of its path. And when you listen to it, you half-suspect that guitarist James Iha’s guitar is genuinely shooting flames.

Doof Warrior

But we digress.

It’s a classic, although it wasn’t considered as such at the time, receiving mixed reviews and being one of their lowest selling albums at that point. Which is just wrong, because this is the ultimate Pumpkins album. It’s a massive, 15 song, 73 minute set… but oddly enough, this was the short, compromised version — band leader Billy Corgan initially intended it to be a double album, but was refused by the record company. Even in its “reduced” state, MACHINA is an extraordinary, genre-busting achievement, bursting at the seams with alternative concept rock cybermetal pop balladry. It’s a thrilling mix of delicacy and heavy distortion, driven by angst and emotion, and a whole lotta love.

Above all else, it has really great songs (all written by Corgan). MACHINA is overflowing with powerfully catchy hooks, skyscraping choruses, and deep, driving, relentless grooves that keep it all flowing. Opening track The Everlasting Gaze sets the tone, kicking things off with some gloriously fuzzed out guitars and bass and crushing drums, as Corgan tells us “you know I’m not dead”… and that’s the quiet part of the song. It soon lifts off, racing through stratospheric atmospherics as Jimmy Chamberlain’s drumming transforms into a godlike thundering, while Iha’s guitar becomes a roaring furnace in front of a 100 foot Marshall stack and the whole thing achieves lightspeed transcendence.

It’s not folk music.

Somehow, the album gets better from there, jammed with huge choruses, gleaming atmospheres, and a whole bunch of kick-ass rock songs. It’s the sound of a band giving it everything they’ve got, wringing every last drop of intensity from every note, every word, every moment. Which is what was happening: it was designed to be the Pumpkins’ last album, a goodbye, and thanks for all the fish. Corgan’s plan had been to reconvene the original line-up of the band one last time, and go out on a high with an album that was about a fictionalized version of the band. He re-recruited Jimmy Chamberlain, who had left the band a a few years before. Their previous album, Adore, did not feature Chamberlain: it’s a quiet, hushed affair that never unleashes itself. It’s a beautiful, slinky album, but when Chamberlain came back for MACHINA, his muscular drumming changed everything. If Adore was Black Widow, MACHINA is the Hulkbuster. The band wanted to throw everything they had at these songs. Iha would add effects pedal after effects pedal to his guitar set-up to create the monstrous roar that powers much of this album, while Chamberlain would wreak furious havoc on the drums. However, partway through recording, bassist D’Arcy Wretsky chose to leave, wrecking the band, and Corgan’s plans. The album had to be refocused and started over; former Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur was drafted in for the live shows.

Smashing Pumpkins

The official lineup for the album release and tour: Melissa Auf der Maur, James Iha, Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlain

It’s a concept album — come back! — but one you can air guitar and air drum the shit out of. And, yes, it can be exhausting if listened to from start to finish — but exhausting in a good way, because the music really does consume you. Once you get past the event horizon of the pyrotechnics of the first few songs, you get pulled deeper into the intense gravitational pull and pressures of each successive track… by the end, as you fall through the glimmering soundscapes of With Every Light, the mesmerizing interstellar beauty of Blue Skies Bring Tears and the gleaming alternative pop of Age Of Innocence, you will almost certainly feel like you’re Matthew McConaughey in fifth-dimensional space. But that’s a good thing! Never has something so radio-friendly been so uncompromising in its vision. The CD booklet contains eerie, haunting artwork like the below, full of the dreams and nightmares of Corgan’s original vision of this as a “musical theater” piece based around a rock star called Zero (which had transformed by the time the album was done to Glass, and his band The Machines Of God).

MACHINA CD booklet

It’s certainly not lacking in ambition, and it refuses to yield in its vision. MACHINA is full of emotional storytelling through almost mythically outsized songs. It marked the end of the 90s; luckily, it did not mark the end of Corgan’s ever-revolving collective. It was a forward-looking record, gazing unflinchingly at a glaringly bright future horizon that it raced towards. 16 years on, it stands as a testament to believing in your creativity, and even more importantly, seeing your creativity through, no matter what.

If you have an idea, make it your own… and make sure you actually make it.


Costume design and set design: not just the icing on your short film cake

Wardrobe and set design may seem like frivolous aspects of filmmaking, as if they’re the frosting on top of a cake — nice when they’re there, but not necessary to satisfy your hunger. Wrong! Trying to capture an audience without a setting is like serving a cake without having mixed the ingredients together first. And without icing. And who wants that?! Wardrobe and set design are what give the ‘cake’ its shape, and are often what holds everything together.

Mmm... cake

Mmmm… cake

Visual clues give the audience a deeper understanding of a character or situation; they appeal to our visual intelligence. It’s a way of communicating a ton of information without saying a word. Visual clues give the audience the time: are we in the future, the present, the past, an alternate reality timeline? They can also convey the financial and social standing of your characters, their points of view, as well as where they’re from. You can reflect their beliefs, morality, even their education, just by giving them the right background and attire.

So, not going to a rave, then?

So, not going to a rave, then?

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Black Widow wears a simple arrow necklace. As a spy, her clothes, even her hairstyle, are often arranged to fit the job she’s working. That necklace was the only piece that was her: unconnected to any SHIELD assignment. The arrow reminded the audience of her relationship with Clint Barton, and that underneath her killer moves was a person with relationships that she would break her own rules for. It was pivotal to the story that the audience remember that Natasha has a history, and isn’t just an action hero to provide backup to Steve.

Statement jewelry. Steve not pictured.

Statement jewelry. Steve not pictured.

The wardrobe can give the audience all they need to know about a character, and the set design can ground the story in less than a second. The messy desk of a lawyer in a well-tailored suit shows us someone who presents themselves as having it all together, but has a messy hidden life. A woman in flip flops on a cream couch surrounded by nautical-themed accents has the audience smelling salt in the air without a shot of the ocean or the sound of waves crashing.

You can hear the seagulls. Seagulls not pictured.

You can hear the seagulls. Seagulls not pictured.

Design is especially important in a short film, since you have limited time to tell your story. You need to use as many short cuts, visual or otherwise, as you can. However, coupled with a limited budget, design can cause some massive headaches. As with every aspect of making a low budget short, you’re going to have to get creative to to work with what you have. We hate to break it to you, but you’re not going to be able to build that Nancy Meyer kitchen set. But (assuming you don’t know anyone with a Nancy Meyer kitchen willing to let you use it, or Nancy Meyer herself), you can find a kitchen island at IKEA, put it in front of a large window, and have your cast orbit around it, giving the impression that there’s a large kitchen around them, just out of shot. As long as you evoke the impression of a large fancy kitchen, your audience will see it.

No one fights in this kitchen.

No one fights in this kitchen.

The key things to remember are:

  1. No blank spaces (sorry Ms. Swift). Actors standing in front of blank walls gives off a vibe — the boring kind. Everything the actors say to one another will be infused with that vibe. Don’t undercut the dialogue and their performance by sending out the sleepy signal. (The only exception to this is when a character is about to say or do something integral to the story and you want all the attention on them. Which bring us to…)
  2. Don’t overwhelm. Everything in the space should serve a function. If it’s not there to reflect something about the location, story or characters, it shouldn’t be there. You don’t want your audience so engrossed in your beautifully designed backgrounds that they lose focus on the unfolding story.
  3. Downsize. If the scene is taking place in one location, you only need to create a part of that location. Like the kitchen example above, why create a huge set if your actors are just sitting in place? Dressing up the corner of the room can be all you need — just remember to ensure that all your angles are covered, so wherever you want to point your camera, we’re seeing what we need to.
  4. Reuse-Recycle. This is where it’s good to be a hoarder. Or know one. If not, try craigslist, eBay, garage sales and flea markets. Felicia Day even picked up abandoned pieces of trash off the street for some props in The Guild! Home decor magazines, Pinterest, and of course movies and TV shows can provide inspiration. Just make sure to keep your characters in mind. A pig-shaped cutting board may be cute (and hopefully cheap), but ask yourself, would your character have that in their kitchen? (If you are going for a Nancy Meyer’s look then the answer is definitely not!)
  5. Have fun. You know what makes movies repeat-watching worthy? All the little things you discover each time you watch them. Keep that in mind when putting together your set. On the God’s Work episode of SouthLAnd (moment of silence for that AMAZING show), in one scene children’s alphabet letters were arranged on a table to form the producer’s initials (admittedly, this is not character-based, but it’s a fun easter egg, which is another reason to spend a lot of time on the details). In every J.J. Abrams movie there’s an R2 D2 hidden somewhere (probably won’t be too hard to spot in his next film). In Supernatural’s season 2 episode Playthings, the Shining homages didn’t end with the desolate old hotel.
That's a spooky room number you got there...

That’s a spooky room number you got there…

As we mentioned before when talking about writing, characters don’t often say what they mean. With an absence of history or internal dialogue, the setting and wardrobe are what raise the volume of what is not being said.

Influence Is Bliss, episode one: Joss Whedon

Welcome to a new series of posts we like to call “influence is bliss.”

In this series, we’ll be looking at different writers who inspire us, and who we love being influenced by. Writers who thrill us. They could be writers from the world of YA, TV, or movies. They are all writers who move us, teach us, and make us want to write like, right now.

There’s a long list of these writers who carry us away with their sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, but always beautiful words. Words that change the way we look at the world.

We figured we’d start with a writer who has been a huge inspiration for years, and even more so this year.

Joss Whedon.

Joss Whedon, superstar writer, director and showrunner

Genre-blending hero. Fan favorite. Beloved creator, showrunner and overseer of some of pop culture’s greatest achievements: Buffy, Firefly, Serenity, Dollhouse... Alien Resurrection (we liked it!). And, of course, The Avengers, soon to be followed by a S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show centering on Agent Coulson (“Nick? His first name is agent.”), and, of course, Avengers 2.

What a trajectory. What an icon. What a hero in the geek world. And one of our most important writing influences.

While Whedon proved his action-directing chops with The Avengers this summer, first and foremost it showed just what an extraordinary writer he is. Whedon is one of the few who can seamlessly blend action, humor, and emotion into a tightly executed plot. All while giving his characters deep inner lives and complex arcs.

One of the finest examples of Whedon’s talent is the “meltdown” scene in The Avengers, where our heroes argue themselves into self-destruction. We could watch that scene again and again. It is written with the control of a true master. There are six characters in one room, all with their own emotional trajectories that intersect perfectly. They’re all suffering in different ways, all losing it uniquely, driven by their personal desires and frustrations.

It’s about to get real.

The characters are blasting zingers and snark at each other with both barrels, nailing weaknesses and vulnerabilities, pushing each others buttons like pros — and this is SIX characters firing at each other with machine gun speed as the camera wheels around them.

Don’t worry – it’s supposed to be upside down. This is Whedon turning everything on its head… literally.

It’s like six Shakespeare plays crunched into a few firecrackingly explosive, freewheeling minutes. Everyone’s a protaganist, an antagonist, an aggressor, a victim. As the massive egos showboat and collide and implode, it’s dangerous, and funny, and heartbreaking.

This scene is a masterclass of Whedon-writing: every character’s motives and fears are laid out. The tension builds and is broken with humor before building again. The plot turns and our heros remain true to themselves despite the revelation that they are more than the weapons they wield.

This is another Whedon skill; giving us something real to carry us through the fantasy. Take the now-beloved Agent Coulson; in the shortest of dialogue this previously sidelined supporting player became a fully humanized fan favorite (the cellist, the trading cards) whose fate we desperately care about.

Nick “I watch you sleeping” Coulson

There’s no flashback or soliloquy. Everything is in motion. Everything is kinetic. Because  Whedon’s writing always flows.

For Whedon, drama is not only conflict, it’s rhythm. Lift us up, smash us back down (in the emotional sense, not the Hulk sense). Whedon pulls reversals mid-scene, mid-line, but always keeps us hanging on. He’s like a fighter jet that can turn on a dime, rotating through all kinds of crazy angles at high speed. His writing is extremely agile, which allows him to take us on intense dramatic journeys.

This is Whedon’s writing style (Whedon not pictured)

The Avengers meltdown may be one of the greatest written scenes in cinema history. This scene’s honesty, emotion, rhythm and humor defines “Whedon-esque.” You just marvel (pun… yeah, intended) at his skill.

Of course we cannot talk about Whedon as a writer without talking about his women.  As evidenced by this scene, and by pretty much every scene he’s ever written, Whedon writes incredibly real and inspirational female characters. It is, unfortunately, something that needs to be called out. Because, as sad as this is to write, it’s still unusual. Just compare Black Widow in Iron Man 2 and in The Avengers. It’s no surprise that the creator of Buffy can give us a complex, accessible, conflicted, vulnerable, powerful, beautiful, smart and kick-ass Natasha Romanov. Whereas in Iron Man 2, she basically had to look good in leather.

Whedon and Johansson: intelligent superheroes

To sum up, because this blog is going much longer than we intended, Joss Whedon inspires us to be better. He pushes us to write harder, push each beat further; to have fun, cry, mess with the audience, kill characters, and, of course, make it all incredibly entertaining.