Friday, November 28, 2014

Research in Films: When We Cannot Suspend Our Disbelief

My older brother and I have become discerning with films that he receives from his Netflix subscription. If the film doesn't survive fifteen to twenty minutes of viewing time, then we turn it off and return it. We usually find this happening when our disbelief gets slammed into our faces instead of suspended.

The film Rio was one such example. For those who don't know, Rio is a film about a domesticated parrot who must learn to mate with the last female of his kind, and learn to live in the Amazon jungle while evading poaches. By "domesticated" I mean that this bird brushes his teeth with his book-loving owner, won't leave his warm home for the cold winter outside, and drinks hot chocolate with cookies.

That is one suicidal bird.
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If you're going to write about birds, know this: birds cannot eat chocolate! Like most animals, they will find the substance toxic except in small amounts, and you have to account for weight. Also, why would you give your pet something that could kill them in large dosages? How did this cartoon parrot survive with such an owner?

This scene, along with the creepy scientist who shows up, killed the film for me and my brother. We turned it off and returned it via Netflix. It reminded me of a lesson that I had absorbed from reading about animated film and books: when writing fiction about real elements: do your research

Yes, I'm looking at you, chocolate-poisoned Blu.
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Stories rely on suspense of disbelief, especially those that have elements of real life within the fictional narrative.When you have story elements that contradict with facts that the audience knows, the audience loses that suspense and thus cannot get invested in the audience. We have less excuse to ignore facts than we did before, what with the Internet having various free information, as well as experts only too happy to provide their knowledge. 

That said, we cannot conform completely to what we know about real life, because real life does not always lend easily to fiction. 

Pixar learned this the hard way when they released the film A Bug's Life. They ignored physics of ants being able to survive great falls and take large heights, anatomy in regards to choke holds working on the insects, and most egregiously  . . .

"I'm lost!" So are we, four-legs.
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Ants have six legs. Anyone who has seen an ant knows that, whether they're praying on stray bread crumbs in the park or sneaking through cracks in your walls. How can we plausibly accept these four-legged characters as the same insects we have known before? Dreamworks releasing Antz around the same time didn't help, especially when it depicted more anatomically correct ants that conformed to typical ant society, which is essentially absolute monarchy.   

Pixar learned from its mistake, however, in time for the next animal film Finding Nemo. If they were going to suspend disbelief, they  They consulted several marine biologists, learned to animate water so well that they had to make the water less realistic, and visited the Australian oceans. They also found what facts that they could discard, like the fact that when a female clownfish dies, her male partner changes genders, because it would have been too jarring for the tale they wanted to tell. The fact that they got the rest of the details right, apart from giving the fish cartoon eyes. 

Meet your new mom, Nemo

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Why was ignoring clown fish biology and fish eyes acceptable, while four-legged ants weren't? Because the realistic details, from scuba diving to the Sydney harbor, helped create a believable world. We know that male clown fish aren't overprotective of their children, but after meeting Marlin we can believe that he is an overprotective dad that happens to be a clown fish. 

As a result, Finding Nemo was a critical and financial success for Pixar, allowing them to pave the way for various, believable worlds, like Paris restaurants for their film Ratatouille. They even found a way to make ratatouille look like a fancy dish; having tried to make said dish, which at its simplest level is eggplant soup, I can say that making thick soup look fancy is hard.

Having tried to cook ratatouille, I can say that it's a dense eggplant stew.

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 We can learn from Pixar that it's best to do the research, and then to pick and choose what aspects of truth to use, what facts to merge with fiction. Pixar has certainly learned, and they have integrated that research quite well. With luck, they'll keep that blend in the future, as animated films become more competitive and audiences become more demanding. 

Keep up the good work.

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