Inception – Reality is Personal Fiction

Inception teaser trailer logo

I’ve just watched Inception and have concluded that Christopher Nolan is some kind of genius (possibly an evil genius).

I’m about to discuss the movie and Christopher Nolan’s body of work in as much detail as I can recall. So … Read the rest

Inception teaser trailer logo

I’ve just watched Inception and have concluded that Christopher Nolan is some kind of genius (possibly an evil genius).

I’m about to discuss the movie and Christopher Nolan’s body of work in as much detail as I can recall. So there will be lots of spoilers ahead. Please stop reading if you don’t want the details of his movies revealed (but please do return once you have seen all his movies).

Still with me?


Inception was a brilliant movie and Christopher Nolan is a director at the top of his game.

For the most part, there are two kinds of narratives. There are those that let the characters and the viewer breath and draw their own conclusions, and there are those that firmly hold your hand and guide you to intricately orchestrated conclusions. Christopher Nolan is a champion of this second camp. He is a master of artifice. His movies move along briskly. He always extracts amazingly convincing performances from his actors. He employs exciting cinematography with rousing scores and engrossing sound effects that result in glorious tunnel vision where he deftly delineates how we should be feeling at every moment.

The most common theme of Nolan’s movies is the idea that a lie can be better than the truth. Lies are often easier to live with. All of Nolan’s protagonists are caught up in their own lies. His characters routinely engage in hypocritical behavior, but he moves the narratives along with such skill that these breaches of integrity pass without notice.

Memento guy pierce tattoo still
Memento was the story of a tortured, deranged and broken man out for revenge. It has a very novel narrative structure where the scenes flow backwards. The main character’s wife was brutally murdered in front of him. He was injured in the altercation and has lost his short term memory. He finds inventive ways around this handicap (the tattoos made for great imagery) and vows to hunt down his wife’s killer. This leads to constant twists and turns that require no character consistency. People that seemed sympathetic are suddenly revealed to be devious with no warning. The movie flows at such a brisk pace that we don’t have time to notice or care. We have no time to question its logic (for instance, if he has no short term memory, how does he remember that he has no short term memory?). Memento works because it keeps the viewer at the edge of their seat by withholding information and doling it out in a satisfying manner.

The movie ends with a twist. The main character has already exacted revenge on his wife’s murderer, but continues to frame other men. We sympathize with him throughout the film because we believe his actions have meaning, only to find we have been fed lie after lie. Why does he continue to kill? Because he needs purpose in life. He deceives himself. And his condition makes those lies become personal truths.

Batman Dark Knight: I don't use guns, but my bike does
Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are the stories of Bruce Wayne, a man struggling to overcome his tortured past through strict adherence to lofty principles. They are also stories of astounding contradiction. As the main character, we naturally empathize with Bruce Wayne. We admire his willpower and his unyielding devotion to his principles. He does not kill, and yet in Batman begins he willingly places a man into a deathtrap on a train. He refuses to execute a murderer but doesn’t bat an eye at burning down a building full of his comrades. He refuses to use guns, he takes the high road and uses his fists, his wits and ingenious inventions. Yet his bike has a gatling gun and his car has rocket launchers, which he routinely employs to blow up civilian vehicles. At the end of The Dark Knight, he gives Harvey Dent a rousing speech about why it’s wrong to kill, and then he knocks him off a ledge and kills him. Why do we admire this man? Why do we ignore his flagrant contradictions? Because of the rousing score. The quick editing. The preordained knowledge deep in our hearts that Batman is a tragic hero. This movie also ends with a lie. Batman helps the police cover up Harvey’s murders. We are encouraged to comply because it’s in the public’s best interest to believe that Harvey died a hero. And Batman is a hero for taking the weight of this lie on his shoulders.

Which leads me to Inception. This movie is Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece. It is the sum of all his themes and film making experiences.

Inception dream world floating city folding

Inception is the story of Cobb, a tortured man trying to piece his life back together by leading a rag tag team of charming dream weavers in the (reverse) heist of the century. Inception is also the story of a group of conmen hired to implant a disingenuous and destructive thought into the mind of an innocent, unususpecting man. Cobb and crew are hired by a business rival of the Fisher family to go into Robert Fisher Jr’s mind and instill the idea that he should dissolve his father’s empire. The trick is to make him believe it is his own original thought. The process is called Inception. As the audience, we root for the heroes to carry out this deceit.

This is the central theme of the movie, and of all Nolan movies. Inception. An invisible hand pushing the narrative along, telling us exactly what to see, think and feel while convincing us that these are our own free thoughts. Nolan creates beautiful lies. He is a master propagandist and his movies are advertisements for themselves. Half of the movie consists of Cobb and company trying to figure out how to take advantage of Fisher Jr’s emotions, the other half is them executing their flawless game plan. In a movie about dreams within dreams, this is the final layer of reality, the director pulling the strings, orchestrating the audience’s reactions before they even reach the theater.

This is the genius of Inception. It’s more than a film, it is an idea. It is marketing. It is the predetermined knowledge that this is an important movie by an important director. It’s the knowledge that this is the followup to Nolan’s profoundly popular Dark Knight. It’s the critical hype across the board, the christening of Nolan as the new Kubrick. It is the experience of logging into Facebook and seeing every one of your friends raving about Inception as the best film going experience of their lives. This is a process that every movie, every product aspires to, but none have done it so daringly and deeply as Inception.

Inception is all lies and twists. Cobb lies to his comrades about his deteriorating mental state. He does not divulge that death is a real threat in their final mission until they’re already inextricably entangled. Because things end up for the best, we are ok with these lies. Cobb pulls off the job and saves the day. The Inception is a success. Although it is a lie, it may end helping the deceived target. By absolving Fisher of his inheritance, he also absolves him of the suffocating memory of his father. This parallels Cobb’s own struggle to overcome the specter of his wife. She is dead, but he keeps her memory alive in his dreams. She is a beautiful self produced lie. The emotional climax of the movie occurs when he comes to terms with her death and moves on. This action helps to eject everyone back through multiple layers of dreams, back into reality. The final scene of Inception depicts Cobb returning home. He finally gets to see the shining faces of his children (perhaps this was his real Totem?). As he steps towards them he gives his wife’s top a perfunctory spin. The Camera lingers on the totem and cuts away before we can determine if it will fall over.

The audience is left to wonder… is he still in a dream? We were lead to believe that Cobb had overcome his lies and entered back into reality. For once it seemed like he might present us with a hero headed towards a greater truth, but Nolan puts fourth the notion that it could just be another layer of fiction. If we believe that the top was about to fall over, then it was merely a last minute tease. If we believe it will continue spinning, then the entire movie was a tease because Cobb is still willingly ensnared in his own dream world. And that’s the crux of Nolan’s films. It’s not the destination we value, it’s the journey, the tease. Nolan’s films are intentionally full of contradictions and plot holes, but we ignore them because we are lost in the emotional sweep of his storytelling.

Nolan has cemented his place as a great film maker of our times. He is a master magician who crafts beguiling dreams that entrench us in the moment and not the whole. If films are fantasy, then he is the world’s best liar. But his lies reflect a greater truth about us. Nolan understands that people are not driven by logic, but by emotion. People lie to themselves every day. We live with contradictions. We subscribe to books that outline what is right and wrong, but we pick and chose which rules we actually follow. We bite our tongues to keep peace. We love out of pride. We hate out of love. We smile when we are hurt. We put on faces. Sometimes these lies dig us into a hole. Sometimes these lies help lift us up.

Inception. Reality is made up of fiction.

Inception Xzibit yo dawg meme
Bonus image by Dustin Johnson, inspired by a comment from Weigy


Darkstalkers and the Twelve Principles of Animation

darkstalkers capcom characters intro
I originally posted this a few years ago on the Madman’s Cafe, one of the best online communities for thoughtful discussion of video games since the 90s.  The post got alot of positive responses, so I’ve finally backed it up here on my own blog with a few edits.  To all the members of the Cafe, thanks for your encouragement!

All animated sprite rips in this article are from, a very cool database of fighting game info.  Please note that the sprites do not always have accurate timing.  The best way to experience the visual splendor of Darkstalkers is to track down an actual copy of the game and play it!

Darkstalkers (aka Vampire) is one of my favorite videogame series.  It combines great characters with deep gameplay and amazing animation.  When it burst onto the arcade scene in 1994 I was absolutely astounded by the graphics.  It was one of the first video games to combine feature film quality animation with responsive controls and it really set the bar for all the great fighting games that followed after it.

Darkstalkers was Capcom’s followup to their monstrously successful and innovative series,  Street Fighter 2. There is a tremendous jump in animation quality between the two games.  This is because during the mid 90s, Capcom’s animators started to take a much more educated approach to their craft through studious application of the 12 principles of animation. They are the 10 commandments of animation (well, 12 commandments–but you get the idea) set forth by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, who were great pioneers of animation at Disney from their early years through the 80s.  These 12 principles form the foundation for animation in the American tradition (ie Disney, Warner Bros, Pixar etc), but they’re also found in great animation the world over.

The following is a primer on the 12 principles of animation, as they are applied in Darkstalkers and its various sequals.

1.) Squash and Stretch:  Squash and stretch refers to the animators ability to distort the distribution of mass in an object as it moves through space. It generally recalls the very bouncy, rubbery movments of Disney esque animation, but it’s actually much more comprehensive than that. Squash and stretch occurs all around us in real life. Just pull in and extend your arm and observe how your muscles bunch up then stretch out. Or look at a cat. They curl up into compact little balls then spring into super lithe living torpedos.

Darkstalkers has alot of squash in stretch in obvious and in subtle places.

Look at how Akaris’s tomb grows at the point of impact, then shrinks back. And also how his feet are very thin when they land on the ground until the rest of his mass catches up with them. It gives the attack a real pop:

Here you can see Lord Raptor’s limbs really stretch out, especially his back leg:
darkstalkers vampire zabel attack animated gif sprite

Q Bee is perhaps the best example of effective squashing and stretching in Darkstalkers. She’s relatively restrained compared to the rest of the cast, but her animations have some of the craziest distortions. If you go frame by frame you might be suprized by just how much they squash and stretch her out, yet it feels perfectly natural in motion.
Q-Bee squash and stretch frames animation

She was introduced years later in the third iteration of Darkstalkers, when the animators had matured even further in their abilities. Q-bee’s animation is almost on par with Street Fighter III (my all time favorite game).

2.) Anticipation: this is the build up before the release of the action. Since this telegraphs movement, you can’t have too much of this in a video game as inputs should be fairly instantaneous. Still Capcom managed to implement this well. Most of the resting animations for the characters already set up the characters for some sort of counter movement. If you look at John Talbain in his crouching position he’s super low to the ground, but any of his animations coming out of that are really dynamic and “pop” out with a counter movement. Basically every resting stance in the game is a sort of anticipation pose:
john talbain gallon crouching fierce attack animated sprite

A more direct example of anticipation can be seen here:
darkstalkers vampire sasquatch punch animation animated sprite gif

He’s got a very nice windup before the actual punch. Anticipation helps to prepare the audience for the coming action and also gives the sense that the character is thinking about what they’re doing.

3.) Staging: Basically how an action is framed in a shot with consideration to things like placement, camera angle, zoom and lighting.  As a 2-d fighter, Darkstalkers only takes place in a fixed side view, but the stages are optimized for this setup. They’re interesting and they frame the action well, without distracting from it.

Look at how the killer plants in the background frame the action, rather than clash with it.
dark stalkers vampire savior background

Darkstalkers has some GREAT stages. It was the first Capcom game to have backgrounds that felt like they belonged in a feature film.
darkstalkers vampire savior egypt background
Aside from being technically sound with good rendering, color choices, and prespective, the stages were full of character and mood. Fetus of God will always be a personal favorite of mine (so disturbing!).

Darkstalkers Vampire Savior Jedah Stage fetus of god
my big brother HATED playing on this stage!

4.) Straight Ahead or Pose to Pose: This has more to do with the process of animation itself. When animating, you can either draw out the key poses first then go back and fill in the inbetweens, or you can plow through the animation one frame after another in order. Complex character animations are generally done pose to pose, while more peripheral animations such as cloth are done straightahead (though generally after the main animation has been worked out pose to pose). Most of the animations in the game were probably worked out pose to pose. But some such as Pyron’s flames were very likely done with straight ahead animation:
darkstalkers vampire pyron attack animated sprite animationdarkstalkers vampire pyron walk animated sprite animation

5.) Followthrough and overlapping action:  This mostly pertains to things that trail the main action like clothing, hair, bouncing breasts etc, think of it as the aftermath of the main action. The Vampire games are good about this. DarkStalkers is one of the first games I can recall that has any followthrough animation at all. For instance, check out Dimitri’s cape:
darkstalkers vampire dimitri sprite rip win pose animation animated gifdarkstalkers vampire dimitri sprite rip default neutral stance animation animated gif

Or Hsein-Ko’s baggy robes and ribbon:
Darkstalkers Hsien-ko Lei Lei sprite rip walk forward animated gif

Felecia’s hair has tons of volume and body. It bounces along as it trails her movements (this animation is also a great example of squash and stretch):
darkstalkers vampire felicia sprite rip attack animated gif animation

6.) Slow In Slow Out: This refers to changing the spacing and timing of actions so they’re not totally uniform and flat (when animation is very even it is sometimes refered to as the “King Kong effect” referring to the old stop motion films where everything moved at a steady speed). Darkstalkers is a real vanguard when it comes to slow in and slow out for game animation. I’m sure alot of you guys can recall the first time you saw Darkstalkers and thought “wow that’s beautiful, so smooth!”  It’s not just because it had more frames of animation than most other games to date, but because they put those frames in the right places. Every action has a varied tempo.

For instance, look at Lillith’s walk cycle. It’s such a nice little skip, with a great lilt to it:
darkstalkers vampire sprite rip lillith skipping walk forward animated gif animation

The frame padding in Vampire is very expertly done to give weight to the moves. Fierce attacks tend to have alot of frame padding, giving them a very meaty feeling. They looked and FELT stronger than weak attacks. The principle of slow in slow out is very obviously exhibited with the slower characters, like Victor with his giant club like limbs.
Darkstalkers Vampire sprite rip Victor Fierce Kick animated gif animation
He was the first character in Darkstalkers I ever picked because I enjoyed watching his ponderous movements, which got more and more extreme as the games went on.

Oh and I almost forgot to mention, another thing the Darkstalkers games do well is the characters tend to lead their actions with their shoulders and hips:
Darkstalkers Vampire Felicia sprite rip fierce punch animated gif animation

This is supremely important for imparting impact. It’s a basic principle of martial arts that your power comes from your core.  Alot of animation still does not utilize this principle. Many 3d games have animations where the characters lead with their extremeties rather than their body, leading to a feeling of a marionette on strings.

7.) Arcs: Just about every living thing moves in arcs. Human locomotion comes from the rotation of our joints. In animation, we use arcs to map out the paths of movements.  Here’s an example of arcs being used for a walk cycle:

Richard Williams The Animators Survival Kit walk cycle arcs map
A page from The Animator's Survival Kit, by Richard Williams. This is one of the very best books on the fundamentals of animation.

Arcs are essential for keeping your animation smooth and on track so that nothing slips out of place.

All the motions in Darkstalkers were certainly planned out with arcs. Some are quite obvious:

darkstalkers night warriors donavan special move sprite rip animation gif animation

But really, everything in the game has good motion paths. This is a really essential principle, especially for traditional hand drawn animation. You have to plan movements on arcs, otherwise they won’t line up frame to frame.

By the time they got to animating Vampire Savior, they were pulling off some really complex animation:
darkstalkers vampire savior animated gif q-bee kick sprite rip animation
There are so many arcs going on in that motion, and alot of them are overlapping, turning in on themselves. While her legs are performing a very broad circular action, there’s so much subtly going on in her torso, especially her shoulders. Look at how they loop towards the viewer in a figure 8. Then look at her head turning in perspective, with the antennae trailing behind forming another circle. This circular motion is also echoed in her Bee-hind (ha!). There’s also a ton of great squashing and stretching going on with the spikes really popping out of her knees and more subtle stuff with her legs and stinger. There’s also some great motion blurs on the wings, and great overlapping action with her legs snapping into full extension only after a full rotation of the shoulders, into the torso, into her hips into her knees. There’s so much weight as she throws her entire body into the cartwheel then catches herself and settles back onto the ground for a split second before resuming hovering. Everything about this animation is great and exhibits mastery of every principle of animation. This animation has it all!

8.) Secondary Action. Not to be confused with followthrough, this is more like minor actions supporting a main action. John Talbain’s tail animations are a way excellent example of secondary action:
darkstalkers vampire john talbain gallon sprite rip animation default pose animated gif
His tail is never the main action. During his neutral stance, the main action is his growling. That’s what is being emphasized, but the tail gives an added sense of energy and even friskiness. If you took away his tail animation, all his movements would still work, but they wouldn’t have the same sense of character.

9.) Timing: This refers to the speed of an animation. Timing helps to establish physical properties such as weight, velocity and force. Timing is also important to acting. A character who is depressed might move very slowly with a lot of inertia.  A character that’s scared might make fast, jumpy motions.  Timing can be very abstract.  A humorous animation could be said to have good comedic timing.

Darkstalkers has very good timing, especially with regards to the interactive nature of its animation.  Every button press in the game conjures up an instantaneous performance from the character.  It’s impressive how you can feel the precise power of each attack. Light attacks tend to come out very quickly.  Heavier attacks come out slower, with more weight behind them.
darkstalkers sasquatch animated gif sprite rip animation low punchdarkstalkers sasquatch animated gif sprite rip animation medium punchdarkstalkers sasquatch animated gif sprite rip animation fierce punch
This is appropriate for both aesthetics and balanced gameplay.

Darkstalkers also uses timing to establish the varied personalities of its characters.  Some characters move like beasts driven by instinct:
darkstalkers sasquatch animated sprite rip gif happy dance animationdarkstalkers Victor animated sprite rip gif low punch animationdarkstalkers lord raptor zabel animated sprite rip gif rib attack animation
Some like trained martial artists:
darkstalkers john talbain animated sprite rip gif medium punch animationdarkstalkers lillith animated sprite rip gif fierce kick animation
Jedah has the presence of a seasoned magician conjuring a spell and taking time to observe the outcome.
darkstalkers jedah animated gif sprite rip animation medium punchdarkstalkers Jedah animated sprite rip gif Fierce punch animationdarkstalkers jedah animated sprite rip self decapitation animation
The Darkstalkers games use varied timing to help convey a character’s physical properties as well as their personality.

10.) Exaggeration: This generally means pushing the animation further than real life. This is sorta a guiding value behind every principle of animation. It seems obvious to state but, the Darkstalkers games are full of really good exaggeration. This is no easy task. Most next gen games have rather undynamic animation (often as a result of motion capture). It’s also easy to go overboard with the exaggeration. This is a matter of personal preference. I’m not a fan of animation where everything is exaggerated to the most extreme degree.  When everything is pushed at all times, nothing is emphasized. It can come off as overacting. Darkstalkers is very good about exaggerating certain motions for greater impact, while leaving other motions more mundane.
Darkstalkers Felicia sprite rip animated gif low punch animationDarkstalkers Felicia sprite rip animated gif fall animation
It’s very tastefully balanced.

11.) Solid Drawing: This basically means good volumetric drawing. Capcom’s artists absolutely excel at drawing.
Darkstalkers Capcom Hsien-Ko Lei Lei illustration Bengus CRMK
All their characters are solidly constructed, with a great sense of volume, depth, weight, and character.
Darkstalkers Hsien-Ko Lei Lei model sheet Bengus CRMK
This is hard enough to do with any form of drawing, even harder to do consistently in animation and harder still to convey in tiny sprites (sprite work takes a mountain of patience).
Darkstalkers Capcom Hsien-Ko Lei Lei animated sprite rip walk backwards animationDarkstalkers Capcom Hsien-Ko Lei Lei animated sprite rip crouching animationDarkstalkers Capcom Hsien-Ko Lei Lei animated sprite rip win animation
This is pretty much self explanatory when you look at any Capcom fighter. They are all drawn extremmmmmmely well.

12.) Appeal: This is the most abstract and subjective concept out of all the principles. Basically appeal means that there is something interesting in the animation that captures your attention. I personally love love love all the Darkstalkers characters. From their iconic designs to their animations and the way their personalities are conveyed through their animations, i love these characters dearly. To me they are every bit as interesting as classic Warner Bros or Disney characters. Capcom really truly excels at making appealing characters. Think about how little story they put directly into their games, and yet think about the empire of lore that has been extrapolated from them. People love these characters. There hasn’t been a new Darkstalkers game in over a decade, but Capcom continues to put out Darkstalkers merchandise, people continue to create fan art and comics and even cosplay as the characters.

Once upon a time Capcom was able to make videogame characters that people could instantly identify with. No need for complex overwrought back stories and cinematics, you just saw the character and instantly understood who they were.

These games were like great rock albums, and the characters were all the different tracks that you didn’t mind listening to over and over because you could always find something new to appreciate. The games and the characters that populated them were inspired. The graphics weren’t just technologically impressive, they were INTERESTING.

Heck, I met most of my best friends in college through a common love of Capcom fighters (this proved to be a far better barometer of compatibility than musical tastes or ethnicity or other means of identification). A big part of it was we enjoyed the gameplay so much, but an even bigger part was the art and the great characters.

John Talbain is a kung fu fighting werewolf. His movements are an amazing blend of wild animal fury tempered with human discipline.
Darkstalkers Capcom John Talbain animated sprite rip fierce punch animationDarkstalkers Capcom John Talbain animated sprite rip crouching kick animationDarkstalkers Capcom John Talbain animated sprite rip gif win animation

Dimitri instantly reads as cocky, arrogant and vicious. His posture is very proud. He fights in a muthaflippin’ skin tight tuxedo with riding pants and cape, what a jerk! But he makes it look awesome!
Darkstalkers Vampire Savior Capcom Dimitri illustration by Bengus CRMK

Lei Lei is an adorable Chinese hopping ghost!

Darkstalkers Vampire Savior Capcom Lei Lei Hsien Ko illustration by Bengus CRMK

Donovan is stern and stoic, but hides deep emotions. He’s a great tragic hero.
Darkstalkers Capcom Donovan character illustration by Bengus CRMK

Phobos is a robot shaped like ancient Japanese Jomon pottery! He’s so mysterious and ancient feeling.
Darkstalkers Capcom Phobos character illustration by Bengus CRMKancient Japanese Jomon statue clay figure pottery
He captures the feeling of early civilization art, which is just barely representational. It works so well with his character.

And Pyron, he’s not just another generic horned demon, he’s an allmighty alien made out of plasma that’s based off of biblical descriptions of god and angels appearing as pillars of fire and flaming wheels.
Darkstalkers Capcom Pyron animated gif sprite rip intro animationDarkstalkers Capcom Pyron animated gif sprite rip burning wheel attack animationDarkstalkers Capcom Pyron animated gif sprite rip pillar of fire win animation
These passages have even been interpreted by some as descriptions of contact with UFOs, hence Pyron is an alien. Isn’t that awesome? He’s not just demonic, he’s glorious.

I could go on and on about every single character, but I think i’ve said enough. I hope this post has been enjoyable to read.  I’d love to hear your thoughts. Who are some of your favorite characters?  What do you like about them?  Do any particular animations stand out?  Don’t hesitate to post in the comments section!

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, check out these other posts!

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Wolfsmoke Studio! The dynamic duo behind Batman of Shanghai and Kungfu Food Girls.
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Illustration by my good buddy Weigy;