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The Willing Suspension of Disbelief

Ed Hooks (Acting for Animators) discusses the willing suspension of disbelief in theatrical transactions.

Few topics stimulate as much discussion in my workshops as the “willing suspension of disbelief.”  What is it? Why is it important?  Does it apply to animation or only to live action? It can be a tricky concept to grasp but is an essential element of storytelling and performance.

In a nutshell, the willing suspension of disbelief means the people in the audience know that what they are seeing on stage or screen is a pretend reality, but they are pretending that they do not know that.  They accept the given premises of the story being told in order to empathize with the actors.  An example would be knowing that Superman cannot, in reality, fly – and then pretending that you don’t know that.  The storyteller tells the audience that, in this story, a man can fly.  The audience suspends its disbelief and goes along with that premise.

A theatrical experience is a unique thing.  Think about it, focusing for the moment on the legitimate theatre:  Actors, audience members, tech crews all come together at the same time in the same place for a common purpose.  Their meeting is not any more random than meetings at church, synagogue or mosque.  The purpose of this meeting is to share a theatrical experience, and all parties – including the audience members - have to work together to make it happen.

Since the primary objective of the major animation studios these days is to motivate a person to spend $15 for a ticket, it is not really surprising that the creative teams at the studios would conclude that, once her ticket has been bought, the customer’s function is fulfilled.  All she has to do in the auditorium is sit, eat buttered popcorn and watch the screen.  This is emphatically incorrect, and I contend that the studios are wasting hundreds of millions of dollars when they think this way.

There is an implied contract between actors and audience, and the terms of that contract are fragile.  It is not so easy for an audience member to suspend his disbelief for two hours.  The storyteller has to help by telling the story consistently within the pretend parameters established at the beginning.  If Indiana Jones sprouts wings and starts flying mid-way through the movie, the audience will feel betrayed, cheated.  Nobody said anything about Indiana flying when the movie started, and nobody said anything about him having secret wings. 

In DreamWorks’ Bee Movie, it is established in the opening scenes that the bees talk to one another like humans do.  They are anthropomorphized.  Cool, not a problem.  But then, fifteen minutes or so into the film, the Jerry Seinfeld bee starts talking out loud to the Renee Zellweger human.  The screenwriter tried to justify it with this:

Renee: (Surprised) You talk?

Jerry:    (Cleverly) Yeah, you pick up a little here and a little there.

No you don’t.  Bees do not talk to humans.  If you are going to tell me a story is resting on the premise that bees do in fact talk to humans, you will have to establish that up front, like Disney did with Pinocchio.  Jiminy Cricket opens the film singing, speaking English, talking directly to the camera, reading from a big book and wearing a cute outfit.  The audience sees that and knows immediately that this is going to be the kind of movie in which these things happen.  When the wooden puppet later comes to life, it’s not a problem.  If crickets can sing and talk and read books, then wooden puppets can come to life.

In Ratatouille, Brad Bird established up front that, in this story, a rat could be a chef.  But he still had to deal with Remy the rat carrying on conversations with Linquini the human. Even if you accept that a rat can be a chef, inter-species vocal communication is beyond belief.  Brad cleverly solved that by having the characters create their own unique hair-pulling language.  The audience knows that is silly, but it is not as silly as believing that rats talk out loud to humans.  And so it works.

Animation places a special perspective on the willing suspension of disbelief.  Mickey Mouse is actually created with lines on paper and there is no way in the world that anybody would think that he is a real mouse.  But that fact does not release the storyteller from establishing parameters for the willing suspension of disbelief within the premise that we are watching a cartoon. If, for example, the story involves Mickey morphing into a duck, it must be clear up front that those kinds of things might happen in this story.

Can you think of other examples in which a story violates the pretend boundaries established up front?