Jem and the Memories

Just the other day I heard a train horn. Far in the distance. I was raised Sacramento, far from the trains. Oh, we had trains. We had a really cool railway station, but I wasn’t raised with the ’sound’ of trains. So, when I heard it out on the walk, my thoughts immediately go back to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Some summer in the mid 70’s, we went and stayed with my Aunt Eloise, and her family. I don’t remember the girls (my sisters) being there, but I did get to spend some of the best time I’d ever shared with Aaron, my late cousin. 

In Pennsylvania, where they lived, trains were kind of a big thing. Moving coal from all parts TO all parts. It was not uncommon at all to hear the horns day and night. It was a row house, built in the earliest of the 20th century if not the late 19th century. One long hallway went from the front door to the back yard. The rooms to the left were the living room, dining room and kitchen. A kitchen we tried to make pop rocks with flour and orange soda. It was a magnificent failure. 

It is these memories and visceral emotions that I can write here, but no one can experience. If you weren’t there, then you have no idea how it felt. The smell of the old house, the tree lined shady streets. The steep stairs up to the bedrooms. That time I got chicken pox there and had fevered hallucinations. None of that. In fact, dear reader, as I describe these things, you most likely go back to your place. Your experience of an old building, or a tree lined street. Perhaps train horns elicit some other kind of response or memory. 

How does this tie into Jem and the Holograms? 

We came onboard very early in the process for this movie. We worked with the designer Kevin Bird and Constantine Sekeris to come up with the look and feel of Synergy. Constantine created Synergy’s body as it is seen in the movie, Legion was there to give her life. 

Synergy was physically built by quantum creation FX in Burbank and Puppeteered by Christian Beckman. Synergy was directed through the whole film by Jon Chu as if she were an actor on the set. She gave subtle and nuanced performances in each scene. At the end of the day though, there wasn’t ‘life’ in her performance. There was gross physical movement that worked in every shot, but the spark that comes from her face or the way her ears move was all visual effects, and a months long process with Jon to design her communication with the world. 

As the movie was cut together, we at Legion, saw the cuts. We saw the charm, the characters interacting with each other. We knew about the plot turns and the pain the characters go through. We watched it all being created, like a story of a memory being told. There were characters, that did things we could relate to. They had experiences that were supposed to connect with the target audience. The rough cuts with the temporary effects did a pretty good job at doing this. 

Then I went to go see the movie. 

This is where I realized the difference between telling someone a memory and sharing a memory. The finished product, while not vastly different, is so different that it became an emotive experience. All this time, two years from script to sitting in the theater with the family. It was not what I had expected. I was there when they shot some of it.  I saw those performances. Heard the singing. Felt the bond the characters had. All of this meant very little compared to what I was seeing up on the screen. Feeling what was up on the screen. My eyes welled up in places where I didn’t expect. I handled the emotional scene well enough because I had been affected by it in the past, but these other moments in the film, I had seen time and time again, but it wasn’t until Jon put it all together, the whole package, did it become something real. 

I know that we at VFX Legion, played a big part in getting this movie brought to life. We did Google map transitions, we did puppeteer removal, we added ears and face to Synergy and in some cases, added a full CG Synergy to the movie. Without Phil Broste, our onset supervisor and post supervisor, Synergy wouldn’t have been brought to life. It just doesn’t really tell the whole story. Making a movie is to bring people into your reality for a time. To have them sit there for 2 hours and experience the world as you see it. To share your experience through character’s eyes and actions. 

I left the theater knowing that what I tried to tell my wife and son about memories and their inability to be transferred beyond words, was in fact not entirely true. I just watched a memory that I had been told for two years, and it wasn’t until we sat in a dark theater under the light of the projector that I ‘felt’ the experience. I realized, this is what he was making. THIS was something he shared with the world. It was good. It was honest. It was real. 

Down the road we can talk about marketing, or even the Jem brand. However, as an origin story into Jem, I think this was a great movie to kick off a franchise. This small 5 million dollar movie, looked like something much larger, a much fuller experience than a ghost in a 3 room house. It was nearly epic for what is was created for. It was a story, well told for the ages, and I know that we at Legion are proud as hell to have worked on it. It’s a shame critics can’t have more fun, and accept what they are seeing. It’s not about high art. It’s about sharing an experience, and letting the audience into your little slice of the world. To pick up what you put down, and follow you until the lights come up. 

Jon Chu did this. We helped, but at the end of the day we were just along for the ride.