Just How Important is Realism in Cinematography Anyway?

“ As we know, there is no sound in space. In the film, we don’t do that.”
Alfonso Cuarón, director of Gravity

Accuracy is a double-edged sword in cinematography. If you’re filming or writing about subject matter that is far removed from your audience’s world – be it a Viking-era drama or an Elizabeth Taylor biopic – accuracy can lend a great deal of substance to the final product, and audiences will become more invested in it if they feel you’ve got it right.

On the other hand, it can be a millstone around your neck when you’re looking to bend facts (or even the laws of physics) in the pursuit of making an enjoyable watch.

Frankly speaking, unless you’re going balls-to-the-wall fantasy with your film right from the off, you’ll inevitably come across points at which you need to decide between sticking to realism or using a little poetic license. Often, they’re decisions that can make or break a script.

Let’s have a little look at some notable examples.

Accuracy – and Inaccuracy – Done Right

Gravity is a film which many people assumed would fail – Sandra Bullock and George Clooney acting in uncharacteristic roles with no other supporting cast, trying to do one of the hardest things in film: portraying zero gravity realistically for prolonged scenes.

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In little over a week, it’s garnered a near-perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes and broken box office records.  Part of the reason for its success is that it promises a scientifically accurate and immersive experience, and goes above and beyond this promise.

A lesser-known recent release was Europa Report, an entry into the found-footage genre that also purported to be 100% scientifically accurate. While the film itself was fairly mediocre, it did garner a lot of deserved commendation for dogmatically sticking to space realism. Not bad for a film which transported a team of humans from Earth to the surface of the Jovian moon Europa in 90 minutes without relying on faster-than-light drives or shortcutting Newtonian orbital laws.

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In both of those cases, sticking as close to accuracy as possible actually helped improve the overall experience rather than hinder it. But let’s take another sci-fi great – Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, a movie which trades scientific realism for pure entertainment.

The premise of Sunshine simply didn’t allow for accuracy. You can’t reignite a star with a neutron bomb. You wouldn’t even be able to get a spacecraft close enough to even try. But Boyle negates this becoming a problem by making the rules of his universe clear from the off – within the first five minutes, we’re simply told these things are possible and that they’re going to happen; accept them as part of the initial premise, and join the speculative fiction from there.

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It all comes down to the disparity between what you promise to your viewers and what you end up delivering. Incidentally, the third act of Sunshine nearly ruins the entire film since it randomly switches to the horror genre with no prior warning.

When Inaccuracy Bites

So being innacurate in cinematography isn’t a problem in and of itself. Only the most pedantic viewer gets hung up on Jasan Statham firing off thirty rounds from a handgun without reloading when the clip should only technically be able to hold fifteen.

Compare and contrast Sunshine with Armageddon, though. For all its mainstream charm, the latter desperately wanted to be taken seriously as a film grounded in actual science. Unfortunately, the science was so far off the mark that it was jarringly bad at times.

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An even worse example of film pretending to be one thing and actually being another comes in the form of an Animal Planet documentary entitled Mermaids: The New Evidence. Hoaxing millions of viewers, the ‘factual’ film was, in fact, entirely fictional; the result of which lost both the Discovery Channel (who also aired it as fact) and Animal Planet a heck of a lot of credibility.

In short, whether you’re striving for accuracy or not doesn’t matter. Just don’t short-change your audience.

“And Now, We’ll Saw This Beautiful Young Assistant in Half…”

The concept of ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ implies that it’s the audience’s responsibility to overlook indiscretions, shut up, and enjoy the film. While they may have the ability to do that, you shouldn’t rely on it.

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People don’t walk into a Penn & Teller show expecting them to actually catch bullets between their teeth.  They still enjoy the show regardless, because they’re familiar with the concept of a ‘magic show’ and know what to expect because of it. The reason Penn & Teller are considered master performers is that they know exactly how to bend the conventions of the craft and to what level they can do so; they’re able to take their audience on a very unpredictable ride without totally debasing the entire experience.

A good parallel in film would be the Nolan brothers. Consider how Memento broke nearly every single narrative convention but never once became internally inconsistent.

One of the root causes of so many problems in filmmaking is an inability to step outside of the project and see how things look from the viewer’s side – it sounds remarkably basic, but it’s something most amateur (and even professional) filmmakers succumb to. This skill comes over time, but until then the best rule of thumb when it comes to accuracy is letting your audience know what they can expect – and how much suspension of disbelief they’ll need to employ – within the first ten minutes of the film.

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