Hello Film Doctor friends!
Welcome to another week and (excuse us for the delay!) another Monday Prescription. This week we cover one of the most basic/core principles of creating good film experiences – believability.This applies to EVERY single member involved in the creative side of a film’s production/post – so read on!
Belief and/or Suspension of Disbelief
Now hang on here because we’re going to drill deep!!
Belief in fiction stems from belief in reality and belief in reality comes from perception. Now there are generally accepted beliefs/realities (such as humans breathe air, humans need sleep, humans die) beliefs that fall in the middle and therefore perception-based (there is a God/science created everything) and absolute disbelief (we can have superpowers/ride flying horses).
When we enter a fictitious story (whether through film, theatre or literature) it is generally acknowledged (even if only subconsciously) that it is fiction we are experiencing.
Why do we need believability then?
Because we want to believe in what we watch and we want to believe because it will deliver us meaning or shock or enjoyment or laughter. To receive those feelings or meanings (especially to a well-seasoned/well-watched mind) it must be made to be believable.
Being humans, we relate to human things. Whether your film is a John Cassavetes style docu-drama or set a ‘long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’ the elements that keep us in (not necessarily draw us in) are the parts that we can connect/relate to or, at least, that we can see ourselves being able to do.
In comedy, the moment a silly man does something drastic to win the affections of a girl (There’s Something About Mary, any Keaton/Chaplin) we can connect and believe in it because most of us have felt irrational feelings of lust/love/infatuation and some have even acted in such a way. In fantasy, we believe in the hero and his/her journey through middle earth/outer space because we can connect to the idea of good conquering all evil or the innate desire to achieve something.
Even the most abstract concepts, ideas, audio and imagery (placed in a commercial narrative form of course) speak to different emotive and psychological sides of us.
BUT, of course, these connections rely on the films being delivered well (believably) and also on the audience’s taste.
Taste vs. High Quality Delivery
Now obviously, in film, there is no ‘exact science’ (there will be another post on this shortly). What is good or believable to one group of people will not be to another. Some would like their films raw and played out in real time and to be small and intimate and real (Fish Tank) others may like the freewheeling man-thrown-from-a-car-over-a-bridge-and-smashes-his-head-through-a-window-but-has-no-injury-whatsoever action movie (Fast and Furious 6) and of course many like both equally, depending on whether they are in the mood to escape or confront on any given day.
We can only talk generally in this post, but when we refer to High Quality we refer to a film being consistent with itself (or prior films in its franchise) and being generally perceived to be of a high standard. Taste does not come into this post as you’re all far too varied!!
Keeping it ‘real’ – Style
Each film is governed by laws and principles, written up by the screenwriter/director/producer. They can be laws about how a character can time travel or what technology a future society will have or what not to do to a random pet after midnight (Gremlins). There are also laws for characters; things a character would and wouldn’t do or say. The end goal is consistency and this breeds believability.
Now the reality/believability is determined by the style and tone you have chosen (e.g. in many superhero films people die and return, in Kick Ass, death means death).
This all begins and ends with you and your collaborators. Make sure you have a clear idea of the rules of your world and characters before shooting (and while editing). It is your world and your style and your rules, so it is you who must know it inside out and not betray yourself!
Example of ‘Ruined’ Believability
The reason why there was such a hoo-ha over Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was that many scenes (Dr. Jones surviving a nuclear explosion in a fridge, monkeys helping out….aliens) did not feel consistent with the other three films in the franchise, in tone and occurrence. What was relatively naturalistic in previous films, sank into absurdity in Crystal Skull.
These kinds of issues do not always translate into poor box office but the film industry, press and global audience are much more forgiving to two heavy weights like Spielberg and Lucas than they are with a first time director (or unnamed director) shooting on a shoestring.
So what can be done?
An Actor, Producer, Writer and Director’s role in creating believability
Every step of the way, from writer/producer’s inception all the way to the silver screen, hundred of different processes will be journeyed through and decisions made, each one with its own level of power to impact a film’s believability:
- -The idea and script should be realised in a way in which the tone and the world the story takes place in is set-up early on and feels true to itself throughout. This is particularly important for fantasy films such as Inception or Avatar. The concepts hook but the situations are inherently unbelievable, therefore the characters and the human interest choices they make create a fantasy world that absorbs you and does not feel alienating.
- -An overuse of CG can jar or put and audience off, especially if created badly. If you want your audience to engage then you must be careful not to allow your production design or VFX to slip into sloppiness.
- -Editing tricks that feel out of sync with the pace of a scene can destroy the believability of a moment. On the other hand, if it is an intended style (like with Silver Linings Playbook) then it could just be offering something unique (the key word there is intended!!)
- -Creating a character/performance is the most important in almost every film! This begins with casting. You must have actors who can be the characters at the click of the finger. Actors, you must leave your own thoughts behind and behave as the character. Get this part wrong and that strong concept and perfect editing will do nothing to bring your film out of the gutter.
To create all of the above you must live, must observe, must see a lot of the world and watch a lot of films. Where do they get it right? Where do they get it wrong? Hire cast and crew who have a strong ground knowledge of the things that need referencing. This will inject a true reality and intelligence into what you do and make the work more engaging.
But what film are you making and what knowledge and work will it need? Is your film supposed to recognise that it’s a film (like all of Tarantino’s work, Iron Man, Down With Love)?? Or is it supposed to be pretending to be real life (Beast of the Southern Wild, Dog Day Afternoon, Paranormal Activity)?? What is the exact tone and feel you want for your film?
Know Your Film/Know Yourself
It all (once again) comes back to knowing yourself and knowing your market. You can not possibly embark on a venture so wild and arrogant as making a 90 minute + feature film without first knowing, precisely, the style and tone and story you intend, and your target audience and its size.
Now say you’ve got there but you’re not sure you’ve done things quite ‘right’. The best way is to study the films closest to yours and see what ‘conventions’ they strictly adhere to and see if you have taken any unnatural (potentially negative) leaps from where you should have.
Obviously, creating rules and believability seem more relevant in some places than others. For example, with parody films like Airplane or Spaceballs or Hot Shots, the filmmaker and the audience are going into the experience knowing that the entire piece if a mockery. The more ‘traditional’ rules of believability would not apply here but perhaps comic tones and styles would be enforced (the aforementioned three include heavy absurdism and surreal sequences where as, for example, Judd Apatow‘s films keep within the confines of reality). So, although you might not be sticking to obvious, highlighted rules, you will still find that there are still some at play underneath.
Sometimes a mix of contrary ideas/approaches can create new and interesting films (take Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Shining – deliberately coaxed out of him by Kubrick, or Groundhog Day which was originally written as a more serious, philosophical piece and was funny-fied by Harold Ramis and Bill Murray).
Better not to rely on accidents or genius directors though!
Famous filmmakers like to coin little phrases for cinema (it’s “truth 24 frames per second”) but whatever anybody wants to label it, cinema is, factually, an illusion. It is the stringing together of individually captured frames of film in which images of men and women pretending to be somebody else are stored. Lighting and sounds (some real, some added) and music are added to manipulate a viewer’s feelings. They are then projected onto a large screen (or computer nowadays!) with the hope that the audience will understand and enjoy it and a very large part of achieving this is creating believable atmospheres, lighting, scripts and performances.
You are a magician, starting out with a lie, and attempting one of the most challenging illusions imaginable. Your aim (with most films) is not only to ensure that they don’t know how you performed your trick but to stop them realising that it’s even a trick at all….