Animated: A senior fantasizes about fantasy

Art of a person shocked by his television as dragons fly out.
(Julianne Wong | Daily Trojan)

I fantasized about what my last “Animated” column for the Daily Trojan as a graduating senior would look like. I envisioned that by then, I’d already have the perfect life lined up for me: the perfect job, the perfect apartment and a perfect future. I’d feel an overwhelming sense of happiness, ready to leave USC and take on the world.

Things didn’t quite turn out that way, but they often don’t. I think it’s fitting, then, that I write about something relevant to me fantasizing about the future: the fantasy genre. Britannica describes fantasy as “imaginative fiction dependent for effect on strangeness of setting,” usually recognized through the possession of magical, otherworldly elements. 

To me, fantasy is synonymous with epicness. It’s my favorite genre to consume because in fantasy, the stakes are always incredibly high — life-and-death situations are a normality — and everything just feels much grander than it does in real life. 

I’m writing about fantasy because it’s fresh in my mind. After reviewing “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” for the Daily Trojan, I realized that even though I may have some technical gripes with the way the story was told, the film made me feel incredibly happy in a distinctive sense. It was the kind of feeling I hadn’t felt while watching a movie in a long time. 

I went to the theater and watched it again because I wanted to experience the same kind of happiness that I’d felt when I watched it about a week earlier. To me, the film encapsulated everything I love about what’s typically associated with fantasy: dragons, magical villains trying to take over the world and lush settings — from castles to battlefields. 

Fantasy is my form of escapism. When I’m watching a film like “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” I imagine myself as having an active quest instead of wandering aimlessly in my life. Mostly, I think I’m drawn to fantasy because the heroes always have a quest that’s important to saving the world they live in. The fate of the world is always at stake, which means that the heroes need to achieve their goals. Their existence matters. 

I guess that’s something that’s lacking in my own life. My general mediocrity means that everything I do isn’t quite so lofty, and most of what I do just affects myself and those close to me. 

I wish that my future would be epic. In other words, I want to feel important like the characters in fantasy are. They aren’t stagnant, but always moving. They have skills and powers that give them control over their surroundings. My greatest “magic” is that, like a villain in a fantasy movie, I’m enthralled by riches. Joking, of course! Or am I? 

Silliness aside, the enemies in fantasy are blatantly insidious. Say what you will about one-dimensional characters, but the villains in fantasy movies always seem to have clear motivations. In real life, I get confused. To me, my enemies are individuals who, in their implicit racism, hide what they really feel about you with pretend kindness. I wish villains in real life were more clear-cut. 

“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” is only the latest example of how the digital arts reinforces the stunning concepts within fantasy. Fantasy transports its viewers to those epic settings, but CGI, or computer-generated imagery, helps. 

For example, Doric (Sophia Lillis), the shapeshifting druid, transforms into mystical creatures like an owlbear through CGI. Aside from that, it’s evident that CGI and visual effects make up a large part of the film’s literal movie magic. As Marisa Mirabal writes for IndieWire, CGI is employed in the expansive worldbuilding but doesn’t hinder the film, instead propelling the setting’s immersive qualities.

Lest this start sounding like a marketing campaign for “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” I want to mention that movies like those in the “Lord of the Rings” franchise truly defined what great storytelling means to me. 

In fact, one of my early pitches for “Animated” was about how the “Lord of the Rings” series uses visual effects to transform fantasy into reality. The dominant case of this is in the creature of Gollum/Smeagol (Andy Serkis), which was rendered using motion capture. The hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) also has a penultimate fight with Gollum. This fight is set in the interior of the volcano Mount Doom, which was also enacted partially using CGI.

CGI is also used in the Netflix television shows I love. “Shadow and Bone” employs CGI to visualize the Shadow Fold, the monster-laden area of darkness dividing the nation of Ravka. The Shadow Fold is a magical and political blight on the characters of the series, and the visual effects reinforce its power. In a similar fashion, “The Witcher” uses digital rendering for its magical creatures. 

Thus, while CGI is often stigmatized given its poor utilization in certain media, it’s crucial to fantasy-oriented storytelling. Technologically speaking, CGI shows the progression of the digital arts in contributing to cinematic experiences. Not only that, but it’s become its own kind of storyteller in the way it’s used within film and TV. 

I’d like to end with a quote from Daisy Head in Wonderland Magazine. Head plays the evil Sofina the Red Wizard in “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” in a stunning performance. She’s just as eloquent as she is an excellent performer, as revealed in her words about what fantasy can represent for those who choose to take part in it.

“I love how these fantastical worlds encapsulate the magic of human creativity — we do not have to be dictated or restricted by who we are, what we do, or how old we are, which in itself is a beautifully timeless and limitless facet of human existence,” Head said.

As I embark on the post-undergraduate stage of my life, I’ll continue to fantasize about the future that I want. Although I wish living in a fantasy setting was in my future, it’s probably not, and that’s OK. Living in real life is its own kind of quest, one in which you don’t have to save the world to matter.

Valerie Wu is a senior writing about animation and digital arts from a contemporary perspective. Her column “Animated” runs every other Thursday.