Representing reality

Representing reality
Contents and media
Beliefs about the impact of
media realism
It enhances audience involvement
Emotional connection with characters
It increases learning
It increases enjoyment
It increases effect
Emotional involvement
Identification with characters
Two major meanings of
A realistic depiction of the natural
A form of representation that depicts
what is seen as an unmediated view of
the natural world
Are ‘natural’ and ‘real’ the
The ‘real’ in realistic presentation has as much to
do with culturally learned expectations as with
capture of ‘true’ or ‘natural’ action, objects, etc.
Color, sound effects, etc. may need to be enhanced in
order to generate a ‘realistic’ representation
Time is often distorted (compressed) to make it more
compatible with audience expectations as well as to work
with the story
Actually, ‘natural’ presentation (start the camera
and walk away) often is experienced as ‘less real’
than doctored
It is often hard to hear dialogue, etc. because of ambient
“On the one hand it asserted that “films built around
the institutions of stories and characters do, in
indirect ways, make reference to the real world or to
an idea of the real world, and the understanding
that they do make such reference is part of the way
in which spectators themselves understand them.”
Yet on the other hand, as Stephen Heath remarks:
“The realism of cinema, as that of the novel, is to be
understood not in terms of some immediate
mirroring of some reality . . . But in relation to the
representation of ‘reality’ a particular society
proposes and assumes.”
Though obviously far from the only contributing factor
(plot, dialogue, acting, and other factors come
instantly to mind) the importance of visually realized
perceptual reality and the truth that lies in details
should be obviously apparent. Imagine if a dramatic
moment was supposedly taking place on a luxury
ocean liner, but the ship shown onscreen was
clearly just a tugboat; context influences the action,
and that moment would be read significantly
differently by the audience. Or more importantly for
this argument, what if the ship shown was an ocean
liner, but was missing the details that the audience
has come to expect that mark it as such—deck
chairs, shuffleboard, a largely white color scheme,
or Cruise Director Julie McCoy—and instead looked
like a military destroyer.
“Stephen Prince suggests that images are viewed
along two axis of reality, the referential and
perceptual. Referential reality refers to how
grounded the image is in real-world actuality; its
fictiveness or non-fictiveness. Perceptual reality is
how much that image appears as if it is grounded in
that reality [3]. By these criteria, a documentary on
dinosaurs is referentially real, while the Lord of the
Rings is not. But, by grounding a referentially unreal
image in visual or cognitive cues that suggest to the
audience familiar experiences and expectations
they have of the real world, a filmmaker can create
a picture that is referentially unreal, but perceptually
The textbook example of this is Jurassic Park, which drew upon
both visual references and plot elements the audience would
be familiar with. The dinosaurs weren’t just the same size and
color as the viewers might have expected from their childhood
trips to museums, but had their computer-generated skin
(designed after everyday lizards’) carefully mapped to interact
with their computer-generated muscles and bones. To breed
further familiarity with the audience’s experience with actual
animals, the dinosaurs ran and moved in patterns carefully
copied from real-life quadrupeds. The visuals were not the
only element to benefit from perceived reality cues: Spielberg
said, ‘The credibility of the premise—that dinosaurs could
come back to life through cloning of the DNA of fossil
mosquitos trapped in amber—is what allowed the movie to be
made’ [4].
The reelization of reality
The drive behind the need to create a strong
perceptual reality, particularly in referentially
unreal productions, is difficult to pin down.
Charles and Mirella Affron discuss what they
term the ‘Reality Effect’—a notion of
perceptual reality which asserts that sets
must look real enough that people who have
been to the actual location they replicate
might think the films were shot on location.
Most films seek to produce a strong reality
“The aspect of reality that is usually inferred
here is visual reality. For example, the
reason aliens don’t physically show up in
2001: A Space Odyssey is not so Stanley
Kubrick could maintain an aura of mystery
(which is what occurred), but because his
special effects team couldn’t create one with
the desired level of perceptual reality. In
fact, Kubrick originally intended to show the
aliens, and extensive scenes about them
and their technology had to be cut for this
very reason.”
“Interestingly enough, research librarians,
production designers, directors, and cinema
theorists all seem to believe in an almost
subconscious ability of the audience to sniff out the
inauthentic based on the smallest pieces of visual
reality, and that the audience actually cares:
“There are a lot of people out there watching these
films, and they know what’s right and what’s not.
And what works and what doesn’t.”
“I think, you know, the audience smells right away if
something is absurd or preposterous. (Producer)
Jim Cameron
In T2 and Jurassic Park, computer animation was
being used to solve a real-world photographic
problem, and so the audience didn’t question the
reality of the images. Film is inherently kind of not
real, and the films that succeed best are the ones
that start by creating a world or characters or
whatever that say: this is real, this is real, this is
real--and they keep coming at you every moment
the actors are working, and every bit of production
design is trying to underline in red that it’s real. The
moment you start playing with virtual reality, the
audience knows that what they’re seeing is not real,
so you’ve sort of violated one of the most powerful
things about film--the ability to create an alternate
“Virtual reality will prove to be a more compelling
fantasy world than Nintendo--but even so, the real
power of the Head-Mounted Display is that it can
help you perceive the real world in ways that were
previously impossible. To see the invisible, to travel
at the speed of light, to shrink yourself into
microscopic worlds, to relive experiences--these are
the powers that the head-mounted display offers
you. Though it sounds like science fiction today,
tomorrow it will seem as commonplace as talking
on the telephone.”
This quote suggests, rightly so, that we have
to learn to accept the new technology in a
kind of willing suspension of disbelief. In the
same way we have to "learn" that the train
coming at us in a film will not run over us,
we will develop a multimedia literacy which
will allow us to accept the characteristics
and limitations of virtual reality as if they
were real--or at least real enough.
Realist presentations
Representation is supposed to ‘stand in’ for
the actual events and objects
The work of representation is hidden from
That is, you should not be aware of all the
technology, decision-making, etc. that went
into telling the story—it should seem as
though you are a fly on the wall actually
watching real events unfold.
Judith Mayne points out that “as
novelistic the cinema depends upon an
unquestioned relationship between
image and the real, as the novel
depends upon a similar relationship
between language and the real.””
Features of realist
Third-person narration
Narrator/audience omniscience
Camera work edited to be unobtrusive
Actors, etc. never directly address
“Fourth wall”
Treatment of actions as displaying
certainty—no discussion of likelihood,
probability, etc.
Features of the presentation
that affect its ‘realism’
Technical quality
Characteristics of the medium
Modalities of perception: Sound, video,
motion, linguistic, etc.
Realism is not always prized
On occasion, the attempt is made to
present a story as fantasy
You may want a sort of magical feeling
Harry Potter
You may want the audience to
experience the narrative as pure escape
You might want the natural and mundane
world to be seen as fantastic
How do audiences evaluate
What have researchers found are the
dimensions that audience members
evaluate story realism on?
Magic window
Social realism
‘Magic Window’
“The extent to which television allows
one to observe ongoing life in another
place or inside the set itself.”
Often seen as disappearing early in
Social realism
“The extent to which television content,
whether real or fictional, is similar to
life in the real world.”
“The extent to which something
observed on TV could exist in the real
Willing suspension of disbelief
“The likelihood of something observed
on TV existing in the real world or the
frequency with which it occurs.”
“The extent to which viewers
incorporate television content into their
real lives or involve themselves with
content elements.”
‘my soaps’
“How much information or events
observed on television are useful to
the viewer in real life.”
Soap operas as a guide for living
Hall’s dimensions of ‘reality’
Alice Hall studied college students’
evaluations of the realism of media texts
Focus groups
Identified 6 “means of evaluating the realism
of media texts”
Emotional involvement
Narrative consistency
Perceptual persuasiveness
Audience members vary in their
willing suspension of disbelief
An example: Jurassic Park