MALAIKA – An Evaluative Critic Essay
The essay may contain strong opinions and heavy arguments in order to form a conclusive review of the film. Please take this into consideration and don’t take offense. All points made are justified with evidence and shall not be taken as aggressive. It should also be noted that the machinima discussed here is a remaster of a 2019 product and does not reflect the current production value of ARCEE Studios. Enjoy!
With last weekend’s release of the Baker+ Original MALAIKA (ARCEE Studios, 2022), I thought it would be a perfect time to write another film essay for the blog. I sat down and watched the film hastily upon its release, and was taken aback by the visuals and messages that it had to offer.
MALAIKA, meaning ‘Angel’ in Swahili, is a short minecraft film made by ARCEE Studios in 2019 and remastered under the Baker+ Original production team to involve English voice-overs and new and improved sound design. “I personally found it a bit unfortunate that Malaika was only ever available in German. I thought to myself, why not make a new dubbed version for Baker+, so that the beautiful short film based on the story by Sabine Ludwig could finally be brought to an international audience,” Fabian Siebecke, Baker+ Director, Original Productions & Acquisitions.
Today I will be focusing only on the newly released English version of the machinima. The story follows a young girl (played by Aivi Dam) whose brother (Daniel Acosta) enlists to war and dies in Afghanistan although having promised to her that he would be back to see her again. It is quite a heartbreaking watch, and was very effectively produced in a way to make it as emotional as it was… Let’s find out how!
The Opening of a Heartbreaking Story
After forty four seconds of very beautifully animated studio credits, we are met with the opening scene, or moreso the exposition. It is the setting stone for what would become the story altogether, and it outlines the equilibrium of the world – namely the relationship between the two central characters, as well as hinting at the conflict. The opening bird’s eye view shot of the house is an unconventional establishing shot taken from above the setting rather than in front of it; this is the view from the sky, arguably a character of its own in this machinima, the stars of the night playing their own role in the narrative. Foreshadowing the death of the main character’s brother, the camera slowly dollies over the house as if we were a ghost – or an angel – watching over the inhabitants.
We then cut to the interior as the camera dollies across the room, the glowing rays of the moonlight’s luminescence cutting in between the window frames. It is through this shot that ARCEE Studios concretes their visual style and their adept abilities with cinematic lighting and shaders. After talking to writer and director Louis Angerer, he said, “ARCEE Studios follows an essential tradition. The next project must surpass the previous one in everything; story, visuals, acting and more… I always loved doing Visual Effects and 3D Animation. But I’m happy to hand 3D stuff over to PhoenixMedia, a very talented artist who has a lot more knowledge about it than I do.” It must be noted that this film was made in 2019 when the quality of machinimas as a whole was not as far ahead as it is now, which makes this shot and machinima as a whole even more impressive, mastering colour, depth of field, and aesthetic creativity. I also reached out to PhoenixMedia to ask about the process of VFX in machinima; “Our process for doing Visual Effects in our machinima has changed quite severely over the past two years… With techniques that are now available to us through a strong partnership with some of the MCHorse Mods Dev Team, we are able to position 3D objects and cameras in software like Blender and then place them into Minecraft, exactly where they should be. An example of this technique being used in MALAIKA is the shot of the dog sitting next to our Protagonist – the dog was copied over from another shot that we matched to our final footage using After Effects.”
Of course, the blue filter is used throughout the whole film in order to follow the themes of death and loneliness, however it is quite polysemantic in the sense that it could have multiple meanings. The blue represents the constant of temporal diegesis in the film – the nocturnal setting – which further adds to the messages about being lonely, with the moon’s isolation in the sky reflecting the image of the girl sitting alone on the balcony. The colours also represent the time of year, as it is mostly set during Christmas, an event conventionally associated with joy, family time, and a bright atmosphere; of course the exact juxtaposed opposite of what this film is about, which really sets up the foundation for the sombre feel of the machinima.
The first conversation of the film excludes the main character and takes place between the brother and mother of the child instead, which is done to push through the exposition quickly and introduce the inciting incident as soon as possible. Due to the girl not knowing this information – a form of dramatic irony – we can assume that it will be hurtful to her, and heavy tension is created right from the beginning, which continues until late act two. There is a lot of play with similar ideas throughout the film that take advantage of the main character’s young age, such as the foreshadowing in the brother’s quote, “But when I return, they [the binoculars] will be yours. I promise,” but also less explicitly in the scene between the characters in the tone of voice of the brother and naiveness of the sister. However, the audience is constantly aware that the brother will never come back, and it isn’t necessarily kept a secret nor is there a build up towards a big shock revelation of sorts. The creators instead focused more on the emotional impact of these events on the main character, and the long dialogue scene between the two in the opening few scenes is that reason the loss of the brother is so upsetting.
A Narrative which Leaves you Sullen
Although I have already spoken about how the opening sequence and act one build up the foundation for the heartbreaking emotion of MALAIKA, the narrative of the story must also be spoken about as it develops in the middle and towards the ending. The end of the sibling’s conversation finishes upon the mention of binoculars, which act as a visual motif throughout the story which remind the character of her brother and allow her to connect with him even after his death. Director Louis Angerer added, “Besides the new dialogues… We took many aspects of Ms. Ludwig’s story [source material]. Ludwig puts a very strong focus on the binoculars that Oliver promises to give his little sister when he gets home.” MALAIKA was inspired by the novel “Großbruderehrenwort” by Sabine Ludwig, meaning “brother’s word of honour” or “brother’s promise”. The scene also fades to black, just as many scenes do, which often symbolises the death of a character or ideology – in this case it’s not just the death of the brother as a person, but also of the girl’s descent to darkness as she cannot handle his disappearance from her life. It must be noted, however, that the third act doesn’t contain any fades to black, as it is the main character’s journey to understanding herself and learning to be able to accept past events.
So the brother leaves his sister right as we get into act two. Despite the sequence being portrayed as happy and positively reminiscent, it is the idea that the audience knows the brother is never coming back that makes it so sorrowful. The main character’s voice over is optimistic and she sounds excited for the future that will never come, with the colours shifting towards a warmed palette as the sun warms the skies and illuminates the scenes that were once dark. As well as visually, the tone also develops this way through the score and how it builds up into a crescendo. I spoke to the composer, Alexander Rose, about the process of the music, and he said, “Malaika 2019 was the first movie I saw by Louis. It touched me very much. When I got the raw film from Louis without music and sound design, I wasn’t sure how to score it… The old version had music written by various well-known composers that wasn’t actually composed for the film. I was a bit sad that I wasn’t able to write the music for the film at that time. It had always been a little dream of mine to write the music for this film. It came true!” Alexander mentions how he and Louis “work very closely together, which should always be the case when film composers and directors want to work together,” which is why he was able to take the score to a level which told a story of its own. The melody is so hopeful and beautiful, holding a similar personality to that of the main character. Alexander Rose added, “It was important to me to give the dog [Malaika] a voice that should come from far away from this world. So I asked my friend and guitarist Michael Baugh if he would like to be that voice. I believe that without his guitar, this score would have been just one of many and my music wouldn’t have done the film justice. I believe that the score shows and strengthens the emotions of the viewer more precisely.”
However, the tone quickly shifts upon the revelation of the brother’s death with voice-over. It should be understood by an active audience that this was going to happen, and the emotional impact on the daughter is foregrounded instead. The first shot after the fade to black opens with rain and thunder (pathetic fallacy), but the extreme longshot of the house reminiscent in composition to the establishing shot is no longer beautiful. It is the same time of day and the same season several years later, but there is no sparkle or glow, no snow falling in the frame, and the only light is coming from the sullen-lit Christmas tree. The dialogue changes a lot here, alongside the lack of score accompaniment… There is no more excitement or spark of joy in any of the two VA’s voices; the talented Aivi Dam and Amanda McKnight deliver their lines in such a way that balances emotion with holding back the emotion, an uncertainty and tremble in intonation that is much more effective than crying. And although the mother tries to be the older one and lead the conversation, she is unable to control the relationship between her and her daughter. It is an uncomfortable scene to watch due to the tension built around the two characters as they tackle their own losses without being able to do it together.
We then enter the third act as the main character must overcome the lie that she has clung on to. Through beautiful visuals, Lucie faces her biggest enemy – the fear of feeling alone after the passing of her brother – which concludes her positive change arc. It is a very subtle development, as there is no antagonist or villain for the main character to battle with, but she rather has to face herself. The narrative has a concluded ending which develops the messages of hope that the audience is left with at the end of the film. The longshot of the girl encountering Malaika places her in a compositional balance with the other subject, but her small size in comparison reminds us that she is still young and has many years to learn about herself and explore her identity. Malaika is portrayed as a reminder that not all hope is lost and that you can still continue to dream on, literally translating to ‘Angel’, a reincarnation of the messages her brother stood for. It is a very beautiful scene which brings shades of cyan and purple to the dull skies and a glowing light reflecting the Christmas star mentioned at the start.
A Film Full of Hopeful Messages
I wanted to better understand what the film meant by having further discussions with the creators. It is a very complicated story, touching upon many different subjects, such as loneliness, depression, domestic tension, loss of brotherly figure, and so on. To me, it was a film about a girl who had lost the only support system present in her life but was reminded that he is permanently alongside her and she should never feel alone. The film is very emotional, as I have mentioned many times in this essay – it is a demonstration of how the title of a minecraft machinima does not detract from its storytelling and moral value, and the filmmakers working on this portray a unique amount of skill and passion for their craft.
MALAIKA is unique in the fact that it is Baker+’s first and currently only exclusive Original Production, meaning it is only available on the platform and not anywhere else. Baker+ Director Fabian Siebecke added, “I am personally very proud of this as this is a major boost for the platform and a step into the future of Baker+. I am very grateful to Louis Angerer and the ARCEE Studios team for being onboard with this production! “MALAIKA” will amaze viewers as it tells a story that many can relate to in one way or in another.”
The visual aesthetic in particular is very strong in this machinima, especially in adding an extra layer to the film’s ideology. I thought it would only be suitable to ask PhoenixMedia about their direction with VFX, “For Malaika we went for a dream-like aesthetic, that some of you might recognise from the Disney movies of your childhood. We achieved this style by using dimmed, pastel colors that we heavily blurred and graded the footage with. We chose this art style to better reflect the very young protagonist – and break from it once her brother dies, only to bring the aesthetic back again later on, when Lucie has her “contact” with Malaika.”
Director and writer Louis Angerer said, “I wanted to focus more on Malaika who is always watching over Lucie. Originally this short story was about two brothers… I changed it a bit though because in my vision Oliver has a little sister named Lucie played by the brilliant and incredible actress Aivi Dam.” When asked about what his messages from the film were, he responded “It doesn’t matter whether you’re still a child or an adult – keep dreaming! Don’t let other people take away your imagination and remember that you are loved. Get excited about new things in life, but don’t lose your inner spark and your dreams.” And so, we shall end on the very positive note that although things in life change and it is difficult to get back up, we shouldn’t forget that there is always hope that life will put us back on track.
Written by Rafal Szuba.
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Former Creative Manager for Baker+