Any film or video game buff will tell you that when the two mediums come together the result is often ugly and offensive. Video game films gave us such abominations as the peanut-headed, humanoid Goombas from “Super Mario Bros.” (1993) and Angelina Jolie’s performance as Lara Croft in “Tomb Raider” (2001). The “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982) video game tie-in for the Atari 2600 was so reprehensible that it was instrumental in the North American video game crash of 1983 and saw hundreds of unsold cartridges buried in the New Mexico desert.
For years, the video game industry has been suffering from a disease, and the film industry is showing symptoms: unfinished products to be patched after the fact. What’s worse, the artists are being made to clean up the executives’ mess with little recompense.
Enter “Cats” (2019), the bizarre flick based on a bizarre musical starring the greatest stars of this generation – naked and hairy. On the film’s release date, December 20, Universal Studios informed multiple theaters that they would soon be receiving an “updated version” of the film. Perceptive moviegoers were able to identify “Cats” 1.0 from “Cats” 1.1 by the apparent visual mistakes such as a clear distinction between Dame Judi Dench’s hand and her furry sleeve. It’s almost as though the film was patched.
Like a swatch of cloth for closing up a hole in a pair of jeans, a patch is an update sent out after a game has been released to fix glitches and bugs that evince themselves. Similarly, developers will push out noticeably bare-bones games and release the rest of the game as paid downloadable content or DLC, a phenomenon that one meme likened to selling customers a bun and then the patty.
With the option to fix all of the problems with a product after it is already released and, vitally, after consumers have already forked over the price of a base game or admission, studios can release unfinished media and simply patch it at a later date.
The implications are troubling, reminiscent of the phenomenon all too familiar to gamers. Though moviegoers are paying the same price for the same ticket, some are getting a demonstrably inferior product. A furry suit may be insignificant, but the precedent is alarming. It seems clear that Universal so desperately wanted a Christmas release that they rushed the film out despite the fact that they were aware it was unfinished. It’s a sleazy business practice, and if studio executives can get away with it then we may be on a slippery slope toward bun-then-patty films featuring patched-in performances, scenes and effects. Of course, director’s cuts have been around for decades, but the key to the patched film is the fact that it is patently unfinished on release and marketed as the same product as its eventual finished form.
More alarming than the fraudulent business practices of Universal Studios is the abuse of artists who are made to clean up the messes created by the executives. Coincidentally, this is best evidenced by another unholy spawn of video games’ and films’ unhappy marriage – “Sonic the Hedgehog” (2020) 1.0, complete with human teeth and an ape-like physique.
When the first trailer for the film debuted in April 2019, Sonic fans, movie fans and people with eyes were flabbergasted by the hideous design chosen for the titular hedgehog. In response to the overwhelming backlash, director Jeff Fowler announced that the film would be delayed by three months to reanimate Sonic with a less nauseating model. Thankfully, a generation of scarred children was narrowly avoided. The question remains, however: how did they manage such a monumental change, essentially redoing a major facet of the film?
The answer came last month as the British Moving Picture Company’s (MPC) Vancouver, Canada branch, the studio responsible for redoing the film’s visual effects, announced that it was going to shut down. As animation news agency Cartoon Brew initially reported, one employee lamented the extreme conditions under which they were made to work, but was unable to verify its authenticity. MPC also worked on “The Lion King,” “Detective Pikachu” and, intriguingly, the “Cats” patch. The fact remains that the artists at MPC were tasked more than once with cleaning up the messes created by major releases, and now all of them are out of a job.
It’s certainly not the first time creatives in the industry have been overworked and abused, and it won’t be the last. Most recently, another Vancouver animation house, Nitrogen Studios, saw employees unpaid for overtime and removed from the credits of “Sausage Party” (2016), the ultimate insult to their effort.
“Cats” has set a precedent of releasing unfinished films and together with “Sonic the Hedgehog” has furthered the time-honored Hollywood tradition of working artists to the bone on a time crunch. It’s the latest abomination born of video games and film, and if studios are not held accountable for it then we may be in for “The Lion King” with a twenty dollar Timon and Pumbaa character expansion pack and “Godzilla” with a man in a lizard suit in theaters for a month before the studio finds a throng of young VFX artists to bleed dry.
A version of this article appears in the Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, print edition. Email Fareid El Gafy at [email protected]