Imitation?

As a writer, I deal with this problem often. I worry, some times a little too much… Is my work way too similar to [insert film/book/show here]?

Yesterday, my blogging and reviewing friend Rachel posted her thoughts on the recently-released animated feature Spark. The film was made by ToonBox and Red Rover International, the Canadian-Korean joint venture that made 2014’s The Nut Job. The film was completed and screened over a year ago, but its distributors didn’t opt to the release the movie until a couple weeks back. Open Road Films, its American distributor, only booked it – complete with an unnecessary and dumb subtitle, A Space Tail – in little more than 350 theaters across the states. So far, the picture has made less than $200,000 domestically, dropped a horrific 90% on its second weekend, and got only a few reviews… A majority of them were overwhelmingly negative!

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From the trailer, you can see the problems. It looks like one of those animated tossaways made for kids 12 and under, with unspectacular writing and a basic storyline. Some others might see the trailer and think “This is a kids’ version of Guardians of the Galaxy, or Star Wars.” Those who have seen it say it takes a lot more from Journey to the West than those two, Journey to the West – for those who don’t know – is a centuries-old staple in Chinese literature.

When watching the trailer, I did get Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy vibes, but… I was more reminded of the various platforming adventure games that came out in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Those years were arguably the golden age of that genre in a post-Super Mario 64 world. Games like… The Crash Bandicoot series, the Spyro the Dragon series the Rayman series, and several others. It particularly reminded me of two series that debuted at the beginning of the aughts: Jak & Daxter, and Ratchet & Clank.

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Ratchet & Clank, you say? You mean that similar-looking space adventure movie for the young’uns that came out last year? Yeah… That was based on a video game series that began life in 2002. Spark reminded me of that, and the first game in the Jak & Daxter series. Ratchet & Clank was created by Insomniac Games, while Jak & Daxter was created by Naughty Dog, the two development companies have always been buddies, and created these games as PlayStation exclusives. The only Ratchet & Clank game I ever played was the 2004 entry Up Your Arsenal, but I played all three of the mainline Jak games. I got those vibes when watching the Spark trailer, because in the early 2000s, there was a lot of stuff like it going around. I was 12 years old in 2004, so I would know.

Boys my age at the time were bombarded with mildly sci-fi, spacey things like these games and movies. Stuff that’s quite similar to what Disney ordered for their Disney X-D channel, which was always geared towards that demographic. Stuff that was sometimes… Well… EXTREME. Spark really reminded me of those. On my other blog, I said it looked a lot like a pilot for a show that Cartoon Network would’ve shown on their “Miguzi” block that existed in the early-to-mid 2000s. That block, apparently the then-replacement of the anime block Toonami, was made up of sort-of “action” shows, some of them computer animated. (Cartoons included Totally SpiesCode LyokoTeen Titans, and a few others. A lot of quasi-anime stuff, some of it made in France.) The Miguzi block, if I remember correctly, would often have movies of Spark‘s ilk. Movies for the roughly 6-12 year old boy set. If not, then they were just shown when Cartoon Network wasn’t running a specific block. It also reminds me of the LEGO line BIONICLE, which was literally my world when I was 10-12!

Actually, Star Wars can be linked back to this because… George Lucas, at Star Wars Celebration, recently said that he feels Star Wars is for that age group. He has actually said that quite a few times over the years, that he always felt the stories were meant for older kids, those who could handle some action and rough stuff. Imagine that, Star Wars being “for kids.” Not trying to insinuate anything, just saying what Mr. Lucas thinks…

So yes, it seems like Spark is very derivative and takes, takes, takes while not doing much with its material. I haven’t seen it and it didn’t open anywhere near me, so I’ll probably end up renting this one when the time comes.

I’d like to think that creators, of whatever kind – be they writers, artists, singers, songwriters, this, that – like to work what they love into what they make. To take cues from, to be inspired by, that sort of thing. Yet I always worry that my work will be perceived as a “rip-off” (a label that the Internet has abused over the years) or a pale imitation of sorts.

I’ve talked about it before, but I’ve been working on a fantasy sci-fi adventure saga for over a decade. One that… Shares a lot of similarities with James Gunn’s film adaptations of Guardians of the Galaxy for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, among a few other things. Like, big similarities… After Guardians of the Galaxy came out in summer 2014, I have worried and continue to worry. A lot of the ideas I had for this and other stories have been on the chopping block ever since, for fear that they’ll make my work look like rip-offs, and that my work will be ignored because it comes off as a bunch of rip-offs or wannabes.

This story of mine, in the form it is in now, has been in the works since 2004. I was working on it before then, even. I trace this very personal project back to little doodle-stories I made when I was 8 in 2000. Anyways, the main ideas here – the ones that show up in Guardians of the Galaxy – have been there since 2004. Not 2014, 2004. 13 years ago. I hadn’t heard of Guardians of the Galaxy until 2012, when I took a peak at the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s upcoming slate. In fact, I was unfamiliar with most of Marvel’s vast library until the Marvel Cinematic Universe really started to take off in 2010-2011. When Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger were released. So yes, I knew NOTHING about Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Star-Lord, Gamora, and Drax before 2012.

I wasn’t even inspired by Star Wars until much later in my life, because unlike most human beings, Star Wars came into my life later than it should have. (Confession alert!) No, I was inspired by what interested me at the time: Various movies and shows, video games, toys, stuff I was assigned to read in school, things like that. All when I was a kid, preteen, and teenager. I always loved the weird and unusual, long before there ever was a Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and long before the comic revival in 2008. But not everyone else will know that, and that’s why I get that fear: Will my story – when it’s out in the world – be perceived as a rip-off?

So I often look at things that are iconic, things that could be considered rip-offs when eliminating all context…

I often hear that one of the biggest bads of all Marvel, Thanos, is a rip-off of the DC villain Darkseid. Thanos is going to be the ultimate villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, too.

Thanos was created by Jim Starlin, who was admittedly taking inspiration from Jack Kirby’s work at DC on the New Gods. It was a Marvel editor, Roy Thomas, who sealed the deal: “If you’re going to steal one of the New Gods, at least rip off Darkseid, the really good one!” But look what they did with Thanos. They made him a compelling villain on his own, Darkseid or no Darkseid! Everyone’s hyped to see him battle the Avengers in Infinity War and the untitled fourth Avengers movie. (Assuming he’s going to be the big bad in that one, too.)

I had also thought of various video games. Donkey Kong… The ape game that put Nintendo on the map in 1981. Donkey Kong evolved out of Nintendo’s scrapped adaptation of Popeye (though they would later get the rights and the go-head to do a Popeye game after the success of Donkey Kong), as it is the same concept: Damsel-in-distress is stolen by a big brute, and the main hero – a much smaller fellow – must save her no matter the odds. King Kong, of course, was an inspiration, that goes without saying, along with the Beauty and the Beast tale. I mean, the Kong inspiration is in his name! Donkey KONG! “What a shallow rip-off of King Kong!” If the Internet in its current state existed in 1981, you would’ve heard someone say that!

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But look, Donkey Kong got a life of its own and launched Nintendo’s flagship franchise! When we look at Donkey Kong and his foil, we don’t see a Popeye or King Kong wannabe (and to be fair, the character evolved from what we saw in the first game), we see unique characters that were Shigeru Miyamoto’s own. Even before all the sequels and such, Donkey Kong was a wildly popular game during the Golden Age of Video Games. It was up there with the likes of Pac-ManMs. Pac-ManCentipede, and several others.

Think of all the space shooter games that came out during that period! Space Invaders wasn’t the first of its kind when it arrived in 1978, but it did something new with what it was inspired by. All the Galaxians and Galagas did this as well, doing new and exciting things with a budding genre. After 1980, you saw tons of maze games, some of them were unique to Pac-Man, others felt like cash-ins.

At one point, a lot of the big name arcade game makers started out with Pong rip-offs. Actual rip-offs of Pong! Williams Electronics, for example, entered the arcades with Paddle Ball in 1973. Just a year after Pong! What did they go on to make… Oh, little games like… DefenderJoustRobotron: 2084Sinistar… And get this, Pong itself is arguably a rip-off of the ping pong game for Magnavox’s home console that came out earlier in the year Pong was released, the Odyssey.

Speaking of retro video games and animated movies, let’s look at none other than Wreck-It Ralph!

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Look at the Fix-It Felix, Jr. game that the character comes from. For starters, the whole arcade cabinet is modeled – detail by detail – after the Donkey Kong arcade cabinets!

Fix-It Felix, Jr. is essentially Jumpman/Mario, and Ralph is Donkey Kong. He’s at the top of the screen, big and brutish, clenching his teeth, sending hazardous (bricks/barrels) objects down towards Felix. Heck, when the film’s concept art was first unveiled at the 2011 D23 Expo, they had a mock-up FIFJ arcade game with an early prototype version of the game on it… where Felix looked just like Luigi!

And yet… We don’t look at Wreck-It Ralph and Fix-It Felix, Jr. as just copies of Donkey Kong and Mario respectively. We see them as wholly unique characters that can stand on their own! It’s like how the titular star of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (based on the book Who Censored Roger Rabbit, which was published in 1981) is a lot like many classic cartoon characters, including a particular cartoon bunny. There’s room for more!

Sometimes things are wrongly accused of being knock-offs, or wannabes. I’ll dip into the world of 1960s music for an example: The Rolling Stones’ 1967 album Their Satanic Majesties Request.

Let’s look… You’ve got a psychedelic-looking cover with the band posing in colorful, old-fashioned gear…

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The album experiments with all kinds of sounds, with each track feeling different from the last, though there is an overall pull that grounds it a bit. A sort of medieval fantasy-spacey sound. It’s 10 tracks long, is very psychedelic in parts, and it was released at the end of 1967. Does that sound familiar?

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Yes, when The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request was released, it was criticized for being derivative of The Beatles’ milestone Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. However, past that psychedelic trickery and cosmic weirdness, is an album that isn’t anything like PepperPepper is mostly inviting and universal, most of its tracks being rather upbeat or relatable. A lot of Their Satanic Majesties Request is… In Another Land. Bad pun, I know!

Perhaps the closest thing to Sgt. Pepper on this album is the hit single ‘She’s a Rainbow’ (“she comes in colors everywhere!”), everything else is more ominous or kind of menacing in a way. Like, ‘A Day in the Life’ off of Sgt. Pepper has that intense finale, but it’s nothing like the spooky uncharted cosmic territory of ‘2000 Light Years from Home’! It comes as no surprise, for the Stones were the rougher and edgier band of the two, so it makes sense that their psychedelic foray wasn’t as friendly. While The Beatles naturally progressed towards the sounds of Sgt. Pepper (see 1965’s Rubber Soul, 1966’s Revolver, the mid-1966 B-side ‘Rain’), the Stones jumped from hard-edged blues-rock to pop sounds to a baroque pop-like sound (Between the Buttons, much earlier in 1967) to this.

After it didn’t sell as well as previous albums, the Stones rejected the psychedelia right away and went back to the roots with ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ in spring 1968, following that up with the very bluesy, rootsy Beggars Banquet later that year. Some will say that Beggars Banquet began The Rolling Stones’ peak years, which ended in 1972 with Exile on Main St.

Some works, though, they just sort of take and that’s it. We see this a lot in and outside of the mainstream American theatrical animation field.

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A few movies or so trying to chase the success of Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Illumination, et al. It seems like there’s always a trend or two that occurs each decade. In the 90s, almost all the distributors locked into animation only to invest in movies that slavishly copied Disney’s then-new formula: The Swan Princess, Don Bluth’s compromised post-All Dogs movies, Once Upon a ForestQuest for CamelotThe King and I, et al. Many of them went belly-up, and found a new life on home video. (We’re on, like what, Swan Princess 5 now?)

The early-to-mid 2000s was a particularly dark time. Distributors and executives learned all the wrong lessons from the successes of Pixar’s films and DreamWorks’ Shrek. A lot of CG crud was belted at us from around 2005 to 2007, films that were composed of dull stories and dull characters, but relied entirely on hipness, forced “edgy” jokes, and lots and lots of toilet humor. Oh, and the wonders of CGI!

Nowadays, a lot of mainstream animated films seem to try to go for all of it: Disney and Pixar storytelling and inventiveness, past DreamWorks edge, lllumination fluffiness, the cartooniness of some Sony and Blue Sky pictures, list goes on. Now it would be fine if an animated feature took inspiration from these places, but used them to its advantage, and did something fresh and new with them. Even great modern animated features made here in America (i.e. ZootopiaInside Out) really aren’t doing anything brand spankin’ new outside of certain concepts, but what they doing with what they have is what’s making them so high quality!

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Rachel brought up a good point about some non-US animation studios trying to get in on our success. I remember months and months ago, the European Union had talks about really jumpstarting big-time theatrical animation because a lot of feature animation made in Europe is pretty small. The UK has a Disney or Pixar-esque equivalent in Aardman, but none of Aardman’s works were as huge as the big stuff that’s made here. Their films often made good-sized bucks at home, but only one of them ever made a real dent here. Anyways, the EU expressed that they wanted to harness what makes our stuff big… When I had heard that, I was a bit disheartened. The thing is, you can’t do that.

You can’t just sit on the sidelines and assume “Oh, well American animation that catches on all around the world has this and that and this and that.” It’s like operating out of a manual. While a good chunk of animated features made on American soil are indeed derivative, something about them works for audiences. For a more critical eye, not all of them score. However, when I look at these Spark-like movies from little studios, I picture intriguing concepts (planets inhabited by alien monkeys!) getting highjacked by these focus group-type committees. They watch our films and wonder “How do we get that? Oh I know, let’s just do this and that!” But it doesn’t work that way, and you’re left with a forgettable film that feels like it’s trying too hard, rather than being its own thing. You have to have heart and creative drive when conceiving these stories. You can’t just… Fill in the blanks, paint by the numbers, connect the dots, etc. Contrast that with a great non-US animated film like Tomm Moore/Cartoon Saloon’s Song of the Sea, or Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name., or a G/PG-rated Hayao Miyazaki film like Spirited Away or Ponyo.

Sad thing is, those more artistic movies aren’t desired by American animation executives. LAIKA is an American studio, but their work is similar to those films, I think. Not quite mainstream, not big and corporate-feeling, but yet they’re so good because they don’t follow the leader. They try TO LEAD. Sadly, none of their films have been rewarded with blockbuster grosses, and it’s a miracle that they’re even made in the first place. A good non-US picture like that or like the ones I listed above need to be picked up by people who are committed. GKIDS is indeed committed to this kind of feature animation, but they can only do so much. We need a big distributor to have faith in these films, but that’s a pipe dream in a post-Eisner animation world. An ideal scenario would be this: Universal gives Tomm Moore’s next movie – the amazing-looking Wolfwalkers – a wide 3,500+ theater release that’s backed by a pretty solid marketing campaign, one that helps it make back its presumably tiny budget and in turn it becomes a household favorite.

Oh to dream…

Still, audiences are fine with a lot of our pictures being derivative. For some reason, films like The CroodsHotel TransylvaniaThe Secret Life of Pets, and several other been there-done that kind of movies (the latter was often accused of being too much like the first Toy Story) have been very successful. Meanwhile, something unique like The Book of Life disappears in the dust. Though to hear the Internet talk – in their race to take down Pixar for their upcoming Day of the Dead tale Coco, you would’ve thought that Jorge Gutierrez’s quirky little charmer was some blockbuster of epic proportions that everybody saw. I doubt audiences will care whether Coco reminds them of “that other Day of the Dead movie” or not, as long as it looks good from the trailers, it’ll be a big success.

The Internet has a fetish for the word “rip-off.” The Coco backlash is just one example of many. But what really makes a rip-off?

Let’s take a trip to the galaxy far, far away…

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Star Wars is a big one… Influenced by Flash Gordon, Akira Kurosawa films, serials, fantasy novels like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series, westerns, things George Lucas loved throughout his life. Nobody cares, because Star Wars took those elements and did its own thing with them, it had characters we love and care about, it has rich mythology, it’s compelling and completely its own beast. So much so that it spawned the megafranchise that it is now. Star Wars is almost like a way of life, it’s so iconic and so embedded in the world population’s brains.

There are plenty of movies, books, comics, et al that lift ideas wholesale from previous works… But they’re liked/loved because of what they DID with them. That is not to excuse not coming up with anything new, I still wholeheartedly encourage people to be unique with what they do. People should create things few have seen before, and do cool new things with what we already know. This is something the Internet should keep in mind when they call an upcoming work a “rip-off” without having seen it.

It’s something I need to keep telling my worrying self… I’m always thinking of how to keep making my work uniquely my own, regardless of whether it takes inspiration from earlier works. That, however, could lead to an obsessiveness… You could become the “anti” whatever it is you’re worried about, and work so hard to make it unlike that other thing that it no longer has the heart it once had. When I reinserted the thing I was looking to take out after Guardians of the Galaxy was released, I felt that a missing puzzle piece was back in place. Don’t be so anti, but don’t be a copycat either. Do something that makes it your own!

I need to relax and say… “It’s your own, you do you. A little inspiration doesn’t hurt, but make sure it’s ‘your’ work and not ‘theirs’…”

You want to see real rip-offs? Works trying to ape other works without passion in them? Look no further…

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What do you think?

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