Search form

Getting Real . . . or Not, the Sequel: Understanding the Codes and Contexts that Trigger Suspension of Disbelief in our Audience

My last installment dealt with “suspension of disbelief”—in filmmaking terms, it’s that ability an audience has to recognize a fantasy, accept it as such, and let themselves be drawn in anyway. I’d be the last person to suggest we should be happy with blatantly bad effects. What I’m asking is: are we working hard enough to understand the codes and contexts that trigger suspension of disbelief in our audience?

My last installment dealt with “suspension of disbelief”—in filmmaking terms, it’s that ability an audience has to recognize a fantasy, accept it as such, and let themselves be drawn in anyway.   

Look at a few horror films from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and you’ll see how well developed that ability to suspend disbelief and roll with it was at one point. All it took was a little latex and a screaming heroine to set the mood. But over the decades we’ve created a very, very different film world. Like antibiotics, digital effects have been overused as a salve to “cure” a bad story; the nasty side effect is that they have left disbelief extremely resistant to suspension.

I’d be the last person to suggest we should be happy with blatantly bad effects. What I’m  asking is: are we working hard enough to understand the codes and contexts that trigger suspension of disbelief in our audience?

Pushing forward into the ’70s, I literally laughed at scenes in The Exorcist when that film debuted in all its pea-soup green glory. It wasn’t until I viewed it much later on an ancient black-and-white TV in a nasty little West LA apartment that it scared the living Hades out of me.

The colorless world of that TV immediately changed my expectations of the movie;

I knew the rules would be different here and, on some level, I accepted that.

Consistency is a major—and may be the most important—piece of the puzzle: Establish the rules for your audience early on and be extremely thoughtful before breaking those rules.

Probably the toughest choices and most disastrous inconsistencies involve the “level of reality” you’re shooting for with digital humans. The codes for accepting or rejecting a face and even body movement (for example, stiff shoulder movement) as human or living are as subtle as they are unforgiving, and we begin compiling them very early on in our development.

Suspension of disbelief is very different in video games at this point—the fact that players are active participants in the fantasy may be all the trigger they need (at least for now), but on the animated feature side it seems we’re better off pushing the “cartoon” slider up and the reality slider down.

There’s some great food for suspension-of-disbelief thought in these films: The Polar Express, Beowulf, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Sin City, 300, Watchmen, and the Spiderman series. Watch the Toy Story series and pay special attention to the evolution of the “human” characters from the first episode to the last.

With all of these films, which ones hit the sweet spot? Which ones didn’t? In hindsight, what might they have done differently?

- Pitz

Don’t forget to check out www.intel.com/software/visualadrenaline to see how Intel and digital content software developers work with us to create the best content creation experience possible. See www.intel.com/software/artist  and www.intel.com/software/digitalarts for tips and tricks on digital animation and model-building.

randomness