The Premise of Geri’s Game
... and why you might care
One of my favorite short films by Pixar is Geri’s Game. I’ve been reading a lot on writing theory these days, and thought I’d share some things I noted upon watching the short again recently. Hopefully this post will be useful to beginner artists in the entertainment industry, or at least make for an interesting read. If you have opinions, feel free to comment. This is the internet, after all.
Geri’s Game is the academy award-winning short directed by Jan Pinkava that screened in front of A Bug’s Life. It’s the story of an old man who plays chess against himself, literally, vying for a pair of dentures.
I want to look at it in terms of motivation and acting, as they stem from theme or premise. And this is a great case to study with regards to keeping the acting consistent between characters (for you filmmakers or animators out there). As we will see, not only are the two Geri’s handled differently in terms of personality, but the choices were made, whether consciously or intuitively, based on the story’s premise.
I’m taking my definition of “premise” from Lajos Egri to say that a premise is the underlying statement that the story seeks to prove. That’s a most excellent concept, one that I wish I had grasped as a student, plugging away at my own short films. In order to tell a compelling story, we need to have something to say, and we need to say it through the conflicts and resolution in the story. And conflict resolution does not necessarily mean that a premise was proven, or even that it was consistent. Let me keep going and see if it makes sense.
Just about everyone chants that mantra: “story is king”. And I nearly agree. Characters and situations should develop to serve the needs of the story, but how do you know you have a good story? What guides the decision making in a story? Stories are complicated beasts, but as it turns out, any good and complete story is directed by a premise or argument, and successfully proves that point of view in the given case. If a story fails to make a judgement about the course chosen by the protagonist, the story will feel like it has holes. Let’s be clear, I’m not talking about beating the audience over the head with some sort of pushy message, so let’s have an example.
We will borrow an example of premise from Lajos’ book The Art of Dramatic Writing. The premise of Romeo and Juliet is that “Love defies even Death.” The characters and situations are built and made to interact to create a story that shows this. The general structure of a premise is something like “________ leads to _________” and it needs to include a hint at the main players, and how the story will resolve. Given this definition, the premise of Jurassic Park could be something like, "Attempting to control nature leads to destructive chaos." (I recently saw Wreck-it Ralph, but I'm refraining from posting what I think the premise of that movie is, until it's been out for a while. You should see it, btw.)
Now, let's get to what I think the premise of Geri’s Game is. We have an elderly man who is actually two characters. You may notice that the protagonist and champion (wears glasses) is framed with mostly yellow trees in the background, and the antagonist (no glasses) is framed in front of red trees, to help us differentiate between the two players. So I’ll refer to the protagonist and antagonist as “Yellow Geri” and “Red Geri” respectively.
Does this hold up? What can we do with this information? Well we certainly see that Yellow Geri knows the rules, but lacks ability and deep understanding of the game that Red Geri exudes. A good example is soon before the resolution where Yellow Geri is pinned in the corner, and at every attempted move, Reg Geri shakes his head and laughs. We can also see how effortlessly Red Geri takes over the board. I want to stop for a moment to interject and say that this is an important part of knowing your character. If you know that the premise is “creative problem-solving triumphs over raw talent”, then we must show those traits to be the primary source of conflict, and we must show that there is no other way out.
Let us look closer at the acting and see how knowing the premise that is to be proven can help even the animators as they make acting choices. Imagine a different take on this story, with different acting. Envision for a moment that this piece showed a man playing chess with himself, and maintained skill level and creativity throughout the match on both sides. It would be neck to neck until the end. We could even build the tension like a professional sports game where at the last moment, an amazing play is made and one is victorious!
So what? It’s boring. Why watch it? What’s the point? Crazy old man.
And if we show Red Geri being very creative in catching the holes in Yellow Geri’s plans, we weaken our argument. He's not supposed to see the switch coming. He's blinded by his competitive spirit that grew from exercising his supreme talent. So in order to prove our premise, they must have different personalities, and therefore different motivations and approaches, even though their goal is the same.
I would say that it is subtle, but Yellow Geri seems to genuinely be motivated to get the teeth. We see this from the first shot where he chews on his gums, missing the dentures. In fact throughout the film, Yellow Geri is the only one who does this. Red Geri does not. He seems most disappointed in having lost the match, being as competitive as many very skilled people are. His gestures do not suggest that he actually wishes to use the dentures, only to keep them in his possession as a trophy.
So this is the really great thing for an animator. If you know what your story seeks to prove, you can weave it into the personality of your characters. Without this basis, one can only intuit what feels right, and it will be easy to get off track. Why would a character not behave in a certain way? Why does he like pizza? Why should a character have a limp, or messy hair, or a nervous twitch? Or better yet, when should he twitch nervously? Well the answer should come from asking what best pushes us toward proving the premise that the story is based on.
And that’s why Yellow Geri does not know that he’s going to play the trick on Red Geri until right before he does. If there were any hint of premeditated deception, it wouldn’t have been creative problem solving, it would have been about thievery. In which case we would have seen a story with very different needs. A story that may or may not touched people deeply enough to have won the Oscar.
It's hard to tell a good story without knowing not only what your story is, but what it says. You can have a number of different premises for the same setup and yield wildly different results. Choose the best one for your particular story, and you'll have a strong root for all creative decisions to stem from.