Realism in a Can

I’d like you to meet a little voice. He’s not a very good friend of mine, but he does serve a useful purpose. He is the Voice of Realism and he pops up everywhere. Trouble is, he’s easy to ignore. He asked me to tell you something for him. It is, quite simply, “Listen.” When you’re reading a script, listen for him. When you’re getting ready to film something, listen! Can you hear him now?

“Sure, a sea-faring adventure movie is great, but if all you have is two plastic ships and a bathtub, you might want to reconsider.”

“Crashing through a window? Nice touch for an action sequence, but if it’s done wrong it looks really cheesy.” (iSundae anybody?)

“Spaceships whooshing past the camera would look cool, but not if the animation is poorly done, or the blue screen gets fuzzy.”

Does he sound familiar? The Voice that warns us when we’re getting in over our heads. Why is it so easy to block him out? We stuff him in a can and stick it in a dark corner somewhere and rush on ahead. How come we don’t listen? Well, I can’t answer for every person, but for me, I get stuck thinking, “Just enough hot-glue, cardboard, and effort will fix it.” Yeah right. Our imaginations can come up with way more than we can do well. Let me give you an example.

For iSundae we wanted a long, dramatic cave sequence. The original script called for some enormous interior cave shots, an arrow trap, an avalanche trap, a lava lake, a chasm spanned by a narrow board, a wall with swords and inscription, a monster fight, a collapsing tunnel, a giant rolling boulder, and the cave exploding. Pictured in our minds, it was the coolest sequence ever.

When it came down to the nitty gritty details like HOW we were going to film this in three weeks and WHERE we were going to get a cave, we ignored the Voice. “Sure we don’t have a cave,” we told ourselves, “but we’ll use someone’s garage and lots of props. It’ll look great!” Ha. Ha. (Keep in mind, we were going for high-quality, realistic sets.) As you can tell from the movie we had to cut several sections and change the existing ones just to get it filmed, let alone filmed well. What got done looks anything but believable. The cave is a really dark garage, the monster is a giant puppet, the green screen is fuzzy. Are we proud of it? Not really. Granted, it was our first attempt, and it didn’t turn out all that bad, but we still look at it and wonder, “Why didn’t we think that out ahead of time?”

Now. Lesson learned. When we set out to make a movie, we need to decide if what we have created on paper is do-able. This involves keeping in mind how much time you have to spend on filming and effects, what effects you can do well, and what materials you have to work with. Maybe you have a really great scene in your script that calls for a duel on a collapsing bridge. Cool! The Voice speaks: “You don’t have a bridge.” Okay, you can either find a bridge or move the scene to another location. Found a bridge? Great! Hark! I hear the Voice again: “It’s a public bridge. You can’t have it collapse.” Alrighty, recalculating.

You could change the scene so the bridge doesn’t collapse, use a different situation to create tension (like having one character nearly push the other off the bridge) or just cut the duel entirely. What I wouldn’t recommend is trying to use camera angles, movement, and spare bridge parts to make it look like it’s falling unless you have tested it and are happy with the result. Sure, you can film the duel and tweak and edit it to your heart’s content, but the chances of your making something you’ll be happy with are rather slim. Consider carefully, especially if you’re a beginner. One well-done, believable scene is better than an hour and a half of bad special effects. Listen for the Voice!

“The script calls for this character to have a dramatic scene, but Jack does comedy better than drama. . . maybe we should re-write or re-cast.”

“That window is going to be in the way. Should we cover it or change locations?”

“The storyboards show a giant hall, but we only have an average size one. How should we re-work that?”

“If you build it, they will come.” (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

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One comment on “Realism in a Can

  1. Excellent point. I’m working on preparing to film something right now with some friends, and we’re wondering how exactly we’re going to do a cave with a dragon. We haven’t gotten very far yet.

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