I still remember a discussion I had after we watched the Chinese movie “Hero” in a sneak preview. My friends and acquaintances were more or less all about one thing: the flying/weightless people. “What was that, for crying out loud?” “That was not realistic at all!”
My reaction? “Well, which movie is that anyway?”
Movies and my two levels of Realism
Although I couldn’t really proof my statement I nevertheless felt during that time that my feeling was nevertheless true. It was that feeling I had after watching hundreds if not thousands of movies and episodes. Nevertheless I couldn’t really pinpoint the reasons exactly.
Now after finishing the book “Story” by McKee I think I know why I couldn’t tell the reason at that time. It was because I now understand that all movies in a way or another have not one but two distinct levels of realism. And both levels are a proof that a movie is never fully realistic. Or in other words: it is impossible for a movie to be realistic.
So what are the two levels of realism? The first level is that of all technical aspects of the movie. The second level is that of the story.
The first level of realism
As I already mentioned, the first level of realism is the level of all technical aspects. This level is in my eyes the most basic level, or even innermost level. And because of that no film will ever be fully able to close this technical gap and hence becomes “realistic”.
I know this is quite a remarkable statement for someone who only made four animated short movies and is currently working on his fourth one. But I hope I will be able to somehow elaborate this thesis of mine:
If you take a movie and reduce it to its most simple form you get a series of photographs on a film. Those photographs are exposed to a light source in a special frequency and are projected onto a screen.
While it is possible to say that a single photograph is in some way realistic this becomes harder for a series of photographs that simulate motion. (One can say that a photograph itself is in its core not realistic. It is an image of a three-dimensional scenery, made with an artificial object, the camera. A photo is condensed reality reduced in time and space.)
On the other hand, one can still say that a movie which shows only one image or one scenery can be regarded as realistic. This is where the cut comes into play.
A cut is in its basic form – as I understand it –a change of time or space or both. So while a single shot throughout the movie without a cut might be called realistic I think that a cut is the first and foremost element on the visual level that destroys realism in a movie because a cut has no true counterpart in the real world.
If you take all the other technical aspects into consideration you can say that a movie is even more unrealistic: sound, sound effects and color corrections (or even black and white).
But despite all those elements that make a movie unrealistic on a technical level many watch movies with tons of those cuts, sounds or even effects and still call it realistic. This is where the second level of realism comes into play, the level of story.
The second level of Realism
If you think about it you could say that in the vast world of movies there exist those that are more realistic than the others. For example a small drama is more realistic than a science fiction epic long time ago. But is that assumption really true?
After I have read STORY by Robert McKee I realized that in the world of movies there is nothing like a truly realistic story. As he writes, each movie (or better: each story) takes place in its own reality, in its own world, inhabited by the characters created by the screenwriter. In a good screenplay each character, minor or major, plays an important role. There is no coincidence. Each act, each sequence, each scene is there for a reason (for example to change an important value as life).
And all are created by the writer. Hence all are artificial, even the biographic movies.
As a consequence, we can say, that although some movies seem to be more realistic than the others, in fact all movies are not realistic at all.
In the end…
So , what does this mean in the end?
In the end, we can safely kick realism out of the window.
As an audience, we don’t need to search for movies that have no effects or no weightless people. Instead we can search for those movies that captivate us, keep us entertained and tell us something about life by telling a story bigger than life. It doesn’t matter if it is not realistic as no movie really is.
And as screenwriters we can stop struggling to find the most realistic setting for our telling. Instead we can aim for stories that big and great that it captivates everyone in the audience, keeps them entertained and tells them something about life. Because that is the most important thing in a good story.