Monster Fare: Visualizing the History of Hammer Productions

   

Link to Visualization: https://public.tableau.com/profile/will.dennis#!/vizhome/HammerProjectFinaledit/HammerFilmsFinal

Introduction

Hammer Films is typically associated with horror and monster movies. Their peak success began in the late fifties and lasted until the early seventies. Their tent-pole films often included classic monsters, scared villagers, and looming gothic architecture. Think Christopher Lee, looming gothic architecture, and villagers with torches. Hammer Productions, a British company, picked up where the classic Universal monster franchises of the thirties and forties—even in America, which is hesitant often to consistently watch any foreign films. Hammer, to their credit, got our American dollars for a solid fifteen years.

 

Initial Ideas

At first, I wanted to visualize networked data of all the scream queens I could think of. Horror movies are very insular—for such a small genre, there is massive overlap among directors and actors who work exclusively within horror. I suspected this was so, so I planned on including directors into the dataset, which would center on the actors.

I envisioned all the interesting connections that would be made by my compiled data–

an actor-pairing like Janet Leigh (star of Hitchcock’s Psycho) and daughter Jamie Lee Curtis (star of John Carpenter’s Halloween franchise. Both appear in separate horror films, but also in horror films together (John Carpenter’s The Fog).  But I could not think of a way to categorize them other than “I know a lot about scary movies—trust me and the connections I make!”

It just wasn’t ringing true, and didn’t feel like cohesive enough an idea. Some definitional criteria I thought up was “Scream Queen means having appeared in five or more ‘notable’ horror films.” But then I realized that this would totally rely on my biases as far as what was notable.

So I scrapped the scream queens. For the sake of this report, I did draw a little sketch representing what I had in mind.

 

 

Process

At the suggestion of one of my users who is also a friend, I realized I had to simplify my projects focus. Hammer films seem a good parameter to set-especially since they are iconic and especially because they are launching a television show later this year after a period of inactivity. Why not?

Data came from IMDb, which has a Hammers Productions page with all titles listed. After that, it was copy/paste into a Word File to do some text editing since things would have been a mess at this point had I tried with Excel right off. Values weren’t matched up or ordered correctly when I tried that at first.

In Excel, you can separate values with a comma, a tab, or a semicolon. A semicolon, in this case, made the most sense because it is more common for film titles to have a space or a comma—a semicolon is the most unique placeholder in this case. Then I ran “text to columns,” selected semicolons as where to split the data.

For the purpose of my visualizations, I used the following categories for my data: Movie Title, Year, Actor, Supporting Actor, Number of IMDb Ratings, Genre, Sub-Genre, IMDB Score, and Director. My first ideas were to look at successful actors, directors, and films. Horror has always been insular and Hammers 60’s-era peak was no different. I wanted data related to frequent costars and frequent actor-director pairings. I suspected there was interesting information visualization material to be mined there.

Once I had the data keyed-in, cleaned-up, and in front of me, I felt like a film analyst. My dataset revealed insights about the films that I expected to see in the data, but it concretized them in data form. It was interesting to see Hammer enjoy current relevancy (522 IMDb rating votes) with their very first production, a horror film starring a horror icon, and then flounder for twenty years experimenting Comedy, Drama, and Film Noir. This lag-time, in which Hammer was ambling toward what would be its legacy—creature horror starring tent-pole horror icons—was a model established by the very first film they produced.

The next time a film surpasses the “current relevancy” of that first film is in 1955, nearly twenty years later. This span, seems shorter when the fact that Hammer closed shop from 1938-1948, is taken into account. Still, when production started back in 1948, all of the films are Crime, Mystery, Comedy, and Drama. These films hover in the hundreds, but still do not surpass the first Hammer Film, hidden by twenty more years of obscurity. It takes another horror film, decades later, to put Hammer on the map in terms of my measure of current relevancy.

Goals

What the visuals were supposed to say—their story—was at first unclear. As I experimented with my dataset in Tableau, by adjusting colors sizes, and by placing different data categories in different row and columns groupings. In short, I experimented until something resembling correctness showed itself. Tableau is great, I’ve found, at doing most of the work for you.

I recruited my UX people early on and talked to them throughout. Of the three users, one is a friend, who only knows about horror films because I pontificate exhaustively. Another is a trusted expert on all films weird and obscure. He has the Nosferatu tattoos to prove it! The final user is an LIS graduate I corresponded with through text and e-mail. She also looked at my visuals before they were submitted. This person was more instrumental in offering UX literature and advice on how to improve the potency of my visuals. Edward Tufte was a name floating around by this point. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Visual Explanations, and Envisioning Information.

I looked over each of these books, convinced he was a genius by the end of each thumbing. Tufte does not like frills with visuals, but he seems to make allowances when they tell an interesting story—even if it’s a slightly misleading story, Tufte seems to respect a powerful visual, making an allowance for slight misleading traits. I didn’t so much take a particular design from any of these books, but I definitely was influenced by Tufte’s taste-level and sense of etiquette when it comes to how visuals should by crafted.

As I toyed around with the visuals, it became clear that showing the users every step of the process wasn’t necessary. They merely did not care to see every draft of every visual and, aside from the LIS graduate, did not care to hear about Tufte.

(Edward Tufte Resources)

The most appealing visual in my dashboard was inspired by old time-series graphs from one of the Tufte texts. This example was from hundreds of years ago, was related to disease I believe and was hand-drawn and informal, yet it still looks similar to my Tableau creation. Time-series seems to be the most straight-forward way to represent the changes in a film production company over time. Visual

The LIS user who exposed me to Tufte helped in a grander scale with this project. With the pictured texts above, I was able to apply fine-tuned rules about visualization etiquette in a way that strengthened my visuals.

The horror aficionado user, since I’m doling out credit, gave me the idea to incorporate director into my data. Director tells a story all its own, completely isolated from actor. My user described one person, for example, director 30 of Hammers 180-ish films. He suggested that having director in the dataset would make the project meatier than if it were just “actor.”

From there, it was back to Tableau for more trial-and-error.

Visual Strategy

Telling a story with a visual, then grouping separate stories together in dashboard form to tell the most appropriate over-arching story can feel daunting. For this reason, I wanted each visual to be simple and effective. I want them to be able to be clearly accessed on the dashboard, so nothing too complicated or abstract-looking.

Whether line graph, bubble, time-series, etc. I wanted to keep each visual simple because I think simple graphs are good with big information. And considering Hammer films aren’t the most engaging topic to non-fans, why make it more complicated or harder to access the information with an intricate design. Also, since these movies are old and perhaps could put someone in the mind of antiquated dusty things, vibrant colors were cool. As one of my users put it, “If the information is dry, liven up the colors.”

Each visual tells a story. Some of them tell an individual story about key directors or co-star relationships, while others supplement each other by telling more complete stories side-by-side. A quick description/interpretation of each visual follows:

 

This visual was not used for my dashboard, but it felt appropriate to post regardless. So many of the visual are about “current relevance,” but this is a tricky thing to measure. After a hiatus in the 80s and 90s of not making any films, Hammer began making movies again in the late ‘00s. Films like The Resident, The Woman in Black 2, and The Quiet Ones appear on the same tier as Horror of Dracula, but this does not mean that these films will enjoy the relevancy that the film from 70 years ago enjoys seventy years from now.

This was a draft visualization, if you will, but I think it tells a story about how fickle “current relevance” is when it comes to measuring the impact of current films that may well be forgotten in ten years when Horror of Dracula is still an enduring classic.

When the films of Hammers ’00 resurgence are removed from the data, it becomes a better graph that I think more accurately rates current relevance. All I had to do was change “all Hammer films” to “Classic Hammer” in the title, which yielded this graph:

This provided a more-accurate portrayal of what I’d been trying with the first, clay-colored visual. This graph is an improvement visually and conceptually, but the monochromatic coloring obscures the genre, which is represented in multiple colors in another visual on my dashboard. Having genre represent the same colors in both bubble graphs would have felt repetitive.

The next visual, Genre/Director visual tells the story that Horror/Gothic/Mystery films were the reason this company stayed afloat for so long. Again, having consistency in genre colors would have been good. But then the presentation would have suffered.

This graph, while not the most visually-appealing, is my favorite to talk about. It is the meatiest, giving a more complete story of Hammer by itself than any of the others when isolated. With this and a copy of the data, I could talk for an hour. It says so much about what it meant to move up in the ranks if you wanted to be a top director at Hammer, which trends to attach your name to.

This visual shows that horror, by far, is the biggest component related to this company’s genre of output. Looking closer at the data, chronologically, you see repeated directors who were making war movies and spy movies and film noir. This suggests a trend that those films were popular in those days.

Despite this popularity (I feel as if the genre labels also subtly imply where the film industry was—if a fledgling company in the thirties is making a bunch of silly comedies, it is fair to assume that silly comedies were a thing then. If the company moves it director to making overwhelmingly war movies, I think that says something about the film industry as a whole as well.

This data suggests trends about the film industry as a whole, but I’m most interested in what it says about Hammer. It tells you which films were most relevant, which directors had the most power within the company. If anything, I wish I could find a way to add a time element so you could see how Hammer floundered to find their horror niche until that Christopher Lee Dracula movie in 1958 where they seemed to discover the magic formula that carried them for the next fifteen years.

Before this film, you see Hammer trying to stretch its wings—experiment with classy film fare (Hammer films, known predominately for its fake-red blood and frequently-ripped bodices, TRIED classy even—a couple of their films were nominated for British Academy Awards. As horror becomes the company’s trademark, you see the directors moving from war and film noir to monster fare.

A cornerstone director like Terrence Fisher would get a really marketable franchise for the company—a Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing pairing (which were always successful) or at least a movie with either actor.

 

This visual immediately catches your eye. There is a bit of discrepancy with the size of the bubbles in the 2000s category (which represent films) but I think you look at this graph and almost instantly want to know why there are no bubbles from the late thirties until the late forties. The same thing can be said of the 1980-2010 decades. Because of the gaps in information and the years associated, and us knowing that this is a film production company, it is clearly evident that these represent times in which the company was either out of commission, not making films, or working exclusively in television.

Hammer, at various points, has dabbled in television. In the sixties, when horror/anthology shows were big (think The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, or Alfred Hitchcock Presents), Hammer had a horror anthology show. In the eighties, when monster movies were no longer marketable and people liked their horror in the form of masked men with sharp weaponry, Hammer stopped making movies and did TV. For the eighties, Hammer was doing Hammer House of Horror only—this coupled with the fact that Twilight Zone and Outer Limits-type anthology shows were all being remade in the 80s, suggests that Hammer saw a lane for profit in television that they did not in films anymore. Perhaps the people at Hammer, with the industries emphasis on gore, saw their brand as too PG for the film market. As I said, their only output in the 80s was Hammer House of Horror. They didn’t seem willing to make super-gory horror films that proliferated in the 80s.

 

Conclusions

For the purpose of this project, I watched one of Hammers most notable flops, also one of their last feature films. When you watch that film you see the formula that made Hammer so hallowed within the horror community. But this, a seventies film, will also have kung-fu subplots and an Isaac Hayes inspired score while Christopher Lee is clearly an aging Dracula.

My data and visualizations are about a company that fought twenty years to find their niche. Fifteen years after their winning formula was devised, it’d been diluted to the point of stagnation. You can see Hammer trying to experiment with making more Benny-Hill-looking comedies that enjoy no current relevance (in my mind, there is a continuing thread between “box office” and “current relevance”. I noted when Hammer made a comedy AFTER finding their niche because hammer, by this point, would label their non-horror comedies “Hammer Presents a Comedic Presentation”—this implies to me that Hammer, whether for monetary or image purposes, was trying to expand beyond horror—they were trying to rebrand perhaps.

Whatever the case, it didn’t work. My visuals are about the rise, fall, and potential rise again of an important company in film. This final project tells the story of a company that fought fruitlessly against what their legacy would eventually be. It tells the story of how fifteen years in a nearly one hundred history can define a thing. It implies that a company will change its face in the span of a year if there is money to be made. It even suggests how a director in the days of Hammer’s heyday might play the game in order to have longevity with the company.

You see the ways in which Hammer rebelled and suffered for rebelling against slasher films in the 80s in order to make television that mirrored the tameness of their older films. You see their resurgence in the 2000s, one that was promising with the release of The Woman in Black, but has petered out since.

Hammer horror films of today seem more like dramas, which is why IMDb categorizes them as such, even before the second genre category, horror. Hammer still makes “classy” horror—none of the films since their resurgence are going to be torture porn or anything. The two-pronged genre category in this case turned out to be a blessing.

My graphs also become a rough guide on what is successful within the horror community throughout history. The graphs, highlighting time and genre of film, suggest trends in film, but also in horror. Films like The Woman in Black and The Quiet Ones are slow-burn. We are enjoying a time in which smart horror films are being embraced and formulaic body-by-numbers ones are not what people see. Horror films like The Babadook and It Comes at Night have to be good—this wasn’t the case ten years ago when the Saw films were perennial Halloween favorites.

In this way, I see Hammer staying true to themselves. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to have worked out. In ten years, Hammer has made about five films, the last in 2013.

The next thing they have in the pipeline is a television show based on a Swedish vampire novel/movie called Let the Right one in. It was remade into a well-received American film as well. This upcoming venture for Hammer seems to be another indicator that they are moving away from films—Hammer seems to do that when they don’t feel as if their brand matches the industry.

My visualizations are successful in demonstrating the evolution of this company, its pitfalls and peaks.

 

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