Propos And The Mockingjay
PERCEPTIONS, ADVERTISING & PRODUCTION IN THE HUNGER GAMES
*possible spoilers to the books in this article
The past year, I have been watching too many television shows that I’ve neglected the books I’ve bought. That is why I’ve decided to finally read them last month. I started with Bossypants by Tina Fey (funny!), then Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (eye-opening). Last weekend, I started on The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. After the first book, I took a pause from the TV shows because it got me hooked. I had to finish the trilogy.
The Hunger Games Trilogy
The Hunger Games trilogy takes place in an unidentified future time period after the destruction of North America, in a nation known as “Panem.” Panem consists of a rich Capitol and twelve (formerly thirteen) surrounding, poorer districts which cater to the Capitol’s needs. As punishment for a previous rebellion against the Capitol wherein the thirteenth district was supposedly destroyed, every year one boy and one girl from each of the remaining twelve districts, between the ages of 12 and 18, are selected by lottery and forced to participate in the “Hunger Games.” The Games are a televised event where the participants, called “tributes,” must fight to the death in a dangerous outdoor arena until only one remains. It is required viewing for everyone in the districts. (from Wikipedia)
The books are great in that they have a lot of things going for it, pushing the story forward. Layer after layer, readers would encounter a number of themes. There is government control, politics and war. There’s family, friendship and love. There’s class conflict, survival and sacrifice. But over and above all of these, what fascinated me the most is perceptions of reality and how media & advertising play an important part in all of it.
The Reality Show
I’m a fan of reality television; and I lean more towards the competition genre. Shows like Top Chef, The Sing-Off, Junior Masterchef, The Amazing Race and Project Runway are just some of them. The Hunger Games is, at its core, a kind of reality competition program… only the contestants are terribly young; and what they’re fighting for is the right to live. It’s an extreme and heightened incarnation of the reality competition concept; but much like the programs we watch faithfully, a large part of the viewing experience is audiences judging the contestants’ character based on what they see on screen. Behind all of that, we know that there are a lot of cogs at work in putting together the show: script, editing, direction, design… Still, we sometimes forget all that and just get sucked in with whatever drama the participants are getting into. As for the contestants, they’re usually themselves while in the competition. However, in the back of their minds, how audiences will perceive them is a huge factor with how they act. Nobody sets out to be disliked, especially when you’re going to be watched by millions of people.
In this book, we are inside Katniss’ head. It’s a first person account of someone who is in the competition. A lot of the things she does while in the arena is driven by her desire to gain sponsors and public support, therefore helping her to victory. Behind the scenes, the Gamemakers who design and control the competition, make sure that viewers are kept entertained. Needless to say, they’re ignoring the fact that these are kids dying in front of the camera. It’s all just for entertainment. For example:
We spent one Hunger Games watching the players freeze to death at night. You could hardly see them because they were just huddled in balls and had no wood for fires or torches or anything. It was considered very anti-climactic in the Capitol, all those quiet bloodless deaths. Since then, there’s usually been wood to make fires. (The Hunger Games, Chapter 3)
The idea of watching people curl up and die is gruesome for us; but them considering it as boring is just a reflection of how the Gamemakers have to keep things interesting for the audience. Bouts to the death are better than freezing to death.
As I hike along, I feel certain I’m still holding the screen in the Capitol, so I’m careful to continue to hide my emotions. But what a good time Claudius Templesmith must be having with his guest commentators, dissecting Peeta’s behavior, my reaction. What to make of it all? Has Peeta revealed his true colors? How does this affect the betting? Will we lose sponsors? Do we even have sponsors? Yes, I feel certain we do, or at least did. (The Hunger Games, Chapter 12)
In Katniss’ head, she’s always conscious of who’s watching and what they’re thinking. It affects her behavior and her motivations in the game; because in the end, it has an effect on the support she gets and ultimately, on her survival.
The Public Image
Aside from the parallels to reality shows while reading about the games itself, I was most interested in the parts where Katniss had a public image to sustain before and after the competition. When I stick to the simply superficial side of this “public image,” they remind me of advertising and what I encounter everyday in production. I couldn’t help but relate when I read these parts being highlighted, especially in the third book Mockingjay, where the war is at its peak and a battle between state and opposition is heightened via television and media… Five things: (1) the mockingjay, (2) the talents, (3) the prep team, (4) the taglines, (5) the propos production.
The mockingjay has become a personal trademark of Katniss Everdeen, which eventually became the symbol of the rebellion. It served as a brand logo, much like the swish of Nike and the golden arches of McDonald’s. Whenever it pops up on screen, people are reminded of Katniss who is the face of the revolution.
Logos are essential in advertising. It’s the one thing that can never… EVER be absent in a print material or television commercial. It has to be caressed and taken good care of in the final cut. Put in a little sheen. Make it bigger. Place a brand bug in a corner of the screen if there’s not enough of an appearance. Add some animation. Anything and everything to make sure the logo is highlighted… the better. The brand logo is very important; because it serves as instant public recognition. It encompasses the brand’s identity and personality. Much like the mockingjay represents Katniss and the rebellion… the fight against the Capitol.
In the trilogy, it’s pretty apparent that Katniss is an attractive young woman. Being the face of the rebellion is mostly due to her actions at the end of the 74th Hunger Games; but part of it is credited to her looking good on camera.
In commercials, picking the right talent is everything. No matter how small their part is, they will represent the brand to the audience. They have to have the right look, the right disposition, saying the lines that are fed to them. There are such things as the J&J baby and the Downy mom, believe it or not. The clients and the advertising agency know who they’re looking for in those casting videos. To quote the book:
“Squad Four-Five-One, you have been selected for a special mission,” he begins. I bite the inside of my lip, hoping against hope that it’s to assassinate Snow. “We have numerous sharpshooters, but rather a dearth of camera crews. Therefore, we’ve handpicked the eight of you to be what we call our ‘Star Squad.’ You will be the on-screen faces of the invasion.” (Mockingjay, Chapter 18)
The ‘Star Squad’ is, to put it bluntly, the good-looking members of the team. They’re in combat; but they will never be in the front lines since they’re the main talents, the “on-screen faces.” The same can be said when it comes to the lead talents of a commercial. They’re some of the most valuable members of the production. Needless to say, they usually have to look good on camera, if not relatable to the masses. If you don’t have the right talent, you have no one to shoot. Smart casting is key in getting the perfect personality for the brand.
The Prep Team
Katniss’ public image is based largely on her looks. Since she is a celebrity of sorts, her prep team has become a constant fixture, keeping up appearances and doing what is required to make Katniss look however they need her to: girl on fire, innocent girl in love, soldier of war. Cinna is her stylist while Flavius, Venia and Octavia serve as his assistants.
Prep Teams in Action
In advertising, it is essential to have a prep team for the talents on cam. These are the stylists, make-up artists and hairstylists. Most especially for the celebrity shoots, each role is fulfilled by a team… tasked to make sure that the talent looks good while following the parameters set by the client for the brand. In the book:
“Everyone knows I have a scar here,” I say silently.
“Knowing it and seeing it are two different things,” says Fulvia. “It’s positively repulsive. Plutarch and I will think of something during lunch.”
“It’ll be fine,” says Plutarch with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Maybe an armband or something.” (Mockingjay, Chapter 5)
Imperfections are hardly seen in advertising. Make-up is important in keeping the talent flawless on cam. Even then, post work is usually done to clean up any other spots or wrinkles here and there.
I sit patiently through the rest of the paint job and don my costume which now includes a bloody bandage over the scar on my arm to indicate I’ve been in recent combat. Venia affixes my mockingjay pin over my heart. (Mockingjay, Chapter 5)
Costumes and wardrobe are covered by the stylist. Any additional details (i.e. bloody bandage), though fake, enhance the drama of a certain look. Final touches such as the mockingjay pin also help pull the whole thing together.
The net pod is at the far end, almost the next corner. This will require someone to set off the body sensor mechanism. Everyone volunteers except Peeta, who doesn’t seem to know quite what’s going on. I don’t get picked. I get sent to Messalla, who dabs some makeup on my face for the anticipated close-ups… Since this is both a mission and a shoot… (Mockingjay, Chapter 19)
Even though Katniss is in a war zone, extra attention still has to be given to the make-up because they’re shooting close-ups. Looking their best is a priority. Make-up artists and hairstylists have to be meticulous during tighter shots; because this is when every single flaw can be seen. They have to always check that not a hair is out of place take after take.
Taglines make or break a commercial. There’s a lot that has to be said with very little words; and it has to have an impact on the audience. Most of all, it has to be memorable and catchy. In Mockingjay, the rebels needed to create propos or propaganda pieces in order to promote their cause throughout the 12 districts. Some were written by advisers, some were from Katniss. Good or bad, the people behind the propos built more and more pieces around these taglines, which became the war cry of the revolution.
“We fight, we dare, we end our hunger for justice!” (Mockingjay, Chapter 5)
“Fire is catching!” (Mockingjay, Chapter 7)
“If we burn, you burn with us!” (Mockingjay, Chapter 8 )
The Propos Production
They have the talents, the prep teams and the concepts. All they have to do now is shoot the propos.
Like a usual production, they had a director and camera crews. After which, there’s editing before they air the final propo over the air. What amused me the most about this part of the book Mockingjay is how close it is to how we do things in real life.
First, location is everything. In their first try, they did the propo in a soundstage.
Then we’re out on the soundstage, where I seem to stand for hours while they adjust makeup and lighting and smoke levels. (Mockingjay, Chapter 5)
Examples of Studio Set-Ups
Here in the Philippines, a soundstage is equivalent to a studio set-up. If the commercial requires effects around the talent, then we usually place them against a green or blue backdrop called chroma. Smoke machines, wind machines or blowers add effects, if needed. Sometimes, we also build sets inside the studio. From a simple bedroom to a kitchen… maybe even mountains! We’ve done it all. Also, before we actually roll the camera to do a take, there are usually a number of last-minute adjustments. A fallen hair here, adjustments in lighting there. It’s tedious work.
After their first attempt failed in getting a natural performance out of Katniss in the soundstage, they decided to do it on location… while in combat.
Examples of Location Shoots
In production, getting the right location is just as important as everything else. There are a number of things to consider such as logistics; but the look of the place has to first and foremost fit the commercial and the story. It also indirectly adds real-ness to the ad when talents are situated in a natural environment. There are also certain locations that just can’t be reproduced in a studio without appearing fake.
The TV crew consists of a pair of burly Capitol cameramen with heavy mobile cameras encasing their bodies like insect shells, a woman director named Cressida… and her assistant, Messala… (Mockingjay, Chapter 7)
Some of the MANY Different Cameras Available Now
During shoot, we of course have camera crews, lighting crews, key staff and most importantly, the director. He or she is the prime mover of the shoot. The “insect shells” Katniss is referring to reminded me of the Steadicam. Other than that, there are a wide variety of camera set-ups especially in this day and age where video equipment come in all shapes and sizes.
Cressida stops us before we can rise, since she needs some close-up shots. We take turns reenacting our responses. Falling to the ground, grimacing, diving into alcoves. We know it’s supposed to be serious business, but the whole thing feels a little ridiculous. (Mockingjay, Chapter 19)
In TV commercials, we usually have one camera to shoot everything. This means multiple set-ups, sometimes done with the same line/s and same acting. At a certain point, depending on what is asked of you, the talents may feel a bit ridiculous. But that’s the job; and we’ve got to finish the shoot.
After everything’s been shot and “in the can,” the footage is sent to editing and approved by the client before showing to the public, much like the propos being approved by Plutarch or President Coin before airing.
The Hunger Games Trilogy not only touches on the consequences of war, but also covers the immense power of media in society. I could go on and on about how the series illustrates such power. However, its treatment of what goes on behind the scenes… the production, the people involved and the process of coming up with a finished product… is closest to my heart. To think that this aspect just adds to the many layers and subject matter the books have to offer.
In the end, I hope this gives you a peek into production and the many things considered in putting together a shoot as well as executing a story concept. It is what I do. It is what I love.