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More Real Than Real: Star Trek and the Pursuit of Verisimilitude

Posted on May 20, 2009 by billsimmon in filmmaking | 15 Comments

“Verisimilitude” is one of the ten-dollar words I learned in film school. It means the quality or state of having the appearance of realism. Narrative filmmaking is all about achieving verisimilitude (so is documentary filmmaking, but that’s another discussion). The whole point is to artificially create dramatic situations that seem “real” enough that a willing suspension of disbelief is possible on the part of the viewer. If verisimilitude is not achieved in a given film — due to bad acting or artificial dialogue or cheesy special effects — then the viewer cannot get “lost” in the drama and the film is a failure.

The language of cinema has evolved over the last hundred or so years to maximize verisimilitude. Early in the 20th century D.W. Griffith established most of what we now call the grammar of film, laying down basic screen direction conventions and “rules” of editing that are still the basis of all narrative films today. These rules govern the spatial relationships of characters and objects on the screen in such a way that in a scene that cuts back and forth between two people who are having a conversation, for example, we see the characters as facing each other rather than staring off at some third point off-screen, even though we can only see one character at a time.

Since Griffith’s time, cinematographic language has been largely dominated by an attempt to make the camera invisible. For most of cinematic history the prevailing wisdom has held that in order to achieve verisimilitude the camera should be omniscient — an invisible fly on the wall that reveals the scene to us without ever calling attention to itself. Exceptions to this rule (breaking the fourth wall, literal POV shots, etc.) are notable because they tend to take us out of the action — breaking verisimilitude in order to achieve a desired effect.

Similarly, editing conventions have been established that can make cutting from one shot to another “invisible.” The “match cut” (maintaining visual continuity between shots) has thus become the option of choice for cinema editors hoping to avoid “jump cuts,” which can have the effect of diminishing verisimilitude.

In the last few decades, however, conventional wisdom has changed regarding how best to maintain verisimilitude in narrative cinema. What was once considered verboten is now accepted. The avant-garde has become the mundane.

Cinematic traditionalists can get rather curmudgeonly about these new acceptable heresies, harrumphing as the 180-degree rule is ignored and as hotshot directors insert their camera acrobatics into the drama.

As the closing credits rolled on the new Star Trek film, I found myself harrumphing a bit as well. Why? Well, for one thing, look at this frame from the film…

picture-2

This isn’t some aberration – some brief glare that I had to hunt for and that only a cinema nerd like me would notice. Star Trek is LOADED with these lens flares. In fact, J.J. Abrams admitted to intentionally shining spotlights into the lens of the camera in order to get this effect…

Our DP would be off-camera with this incredibly powerful flashlight aiming it at the lens. It became an art because different lenses required angles, and different proximity to the lens. Sometimes, when we were outside we’d use mirrors. Certain sizes were too big… literally, it was ridiculous. It was like another actor in the scene….

Why would Abrams deliberately distress the image of his very expensive film? In service of verisimilitude, of course…

There was always a sense of something, and also there is a really cool organic layer that’s a quality of it. They were all done live, they weren’t added later. There are something about those flares, especially in a movie that can potentially be very sterile and CG and overly controlled. There is something incredibly unpredictable and gorgeous about them.

It turns out that as CGI has gotten better at making things look more realistic, we as an audience have become wary of things looking too real. One way to make the digital effects look more organic is to distress the image with lens flares and add an artificial shakiness to the CGI “camera,” as though shots in outer space are handheld.

All of which is quite counter intuitive. After all, a lens flare is an artifact that’s specific to a glass lens.  Our naked eyes don’t see lens flares (at least not the way a camera lens sees them) — so the lens flares we see prevalent in Star Trek and the films of Michael Mann and P.T. Anderson, for example, are by definition artificial. And yet they help these films achieve verisimilitude all the same. I think the reason has to do with the increasing rate at which we perceive reality through lenses.

Consider the “shaky cam.” South African TV commercial director Leslie Dektor is credited with bringing this aesthetic to narrative filmmaking. It was Dektor’s work on Levi’s and AT&T spots that the camera operators and DPs on the police procedural drama NYPD Blue emulated in the 1990s. Dektor’s mother had been a documentarian and he developed his style by watching her. Done well, the effect is much like a documentary style of vérité shooting. The camera follows the action as it unfolds — as our own wandering eyes might if we were sitting in the room with the characters, watching the scene unfold.

Unfortunately, early attempts at imitating Dektor were disastrous. The NYPD Blue camera was neither handheld nor steady — it was on a fluid-head tripod and intentionally jerked about in a horrible, mechanical imitation of vérité. It was as if the cinematographers knew there was some good energy to be had in an ad-libbed shooting style but they didn’t want to commit 100% and actually carry the camera on their shoulders. Watching early NYPD Blue episodes now is like watching all the crazy zooms in films from the late 60s and early 70s after zoom lenses became fast enough for motion picture work — the style is dated and specific to a particular era of filmmaking.

Nowadays cinematographers have no problem shooting entire feature films handheld. This is a post Dogme 95 world. The lines between documentary and feature film cinematography styles are so blurred they basically don’t exist anymore.

Again the relevant recent example is Star Trek. Much of the film is covered in simple handheld shots. Swooping Steadicam shots and expensive f/x shots are here too — it is a big budget Hollywood effects film after all, but the camera work in this scene, for example, is not too distinct from the camera work in this scene from Thomas Vinterberg’s masterpiece of austerity, The Celebration.

And again, the rough, handheld style helps the film achieve verisimilitude, even though our own eyes would not be so shaky were we actually present in these scenes.

We are so used to seeing the world through a camera lens that intentionally adding the messy artifacts of documentary filmmaking (lens flares, shaky, handheld shooting, jump cuts) makes these films seem more real. And since in our actual real lives we don’t carry around movie cameras shooting everything we see (yet), the result is that these films achieve verisimilitude by distancing themselves from reality.

I’m not sure what technique cinematographers will adopt when all of this documentary vérité stuff becomes passé, but I hope I’ll still be able to tell what I’m looking at. In Star Trek, it was sometimes difficult to tell what the shot was of through all the glare, which should be a red flag to filmmakers. Seriously, we need to be able to see the film. Harrumph.

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  1. On May 20, 2009, odum said:

    I have nothing to add. I just love this post. I vote for lots like this.

  2. On May 20, 2009, billsimmon said:

    Thanks Odum! Yeah, it took me two days to write though because of my schedule. Gotta figure out that whole get-paid-to-blog thing. :)

  3. On May 20, 2009, Rob said:

    The shaky camera in the scene you linked to does bother me, but not so much in an action scene with explosions etc. going on. The lens flare however, drove me nuts through the whole film. “Lets take our 50 million dollar FX shot and shine a flashlight in their eyes.” Of the people I’ve asked there are 2 responses to this. Either they didn’t notice the effect, or they did and didn’t like it. As of yet, no one has said they noticed the technique, and thought it added something.

    The zooms of yesteryear you mentioned are what I hated about the Battlestar Galactica space scenes. I thought it made the ships look more like models. Not that it wasn’t superior to it’s predecessor, I just don’t think it added anything.

    The

  4. On May 20, 2009, billsimmon said:

    I like your sign-off, Rob.

  5. On May 20, 2009, Therem said:

    Loved this post, Bill. I’m going to see Star Trek this evening, and I look forward to checking out the camera technique. Personally, I liked the “verisimilitude” of Firefly and BSG and see it as a rich contribution to the cinematographic tradition in SF film. Whether ST goes too far in that direction will be an interesting topic of discussion.

  6. On May 20, 2009, Alex C said:

    Well said, Bill. But I disagree that early NYPD Blue is “horrible.” If you pay attention you’ll see the camera is not lurching randomly, but its attention is drawn by motion or detail that’s relevant to the narrative. I agree that it can be distracting, but once you get over your seasickness you start to appreciate the camera as a proxy for the viewer as an extra character in the scene.

    For example, the camera is on two detectives having a conversation at their desks. Someone enters the squad room door — it’s a woman, and she fumbles with her purse. We notice her before the detectives do; the camera swings to her, then follows her movement to her purse. Later, during the interview, she takes something from that purse — a bloody rag, say, that she found in her boyfriend’s clothes — but only after the detectives have convinced her to cooperate. The camerawork helped accentuate the acting, directing, and narrative, and introduced the concept that she was anxious about the purse which made the later revelation more powerful.

    OTOH, while watching Homicide, which came out a few years later and aped NYPD Blue’s shaky cam, I never got the idea that the cameraman was anything other than an stumbling drunk.

  7. On May 20, 2009, Alex C said:

    > As of yet, no one has said they noticed the technique, and thought it added something.

    Ah, but maybe the noticing of it caused the dislike. If they didn’t notice it, then maybe all they felt was “cool, this feels totally real.”

    The

  8. On May 20, 2009, Spine said:

    Yeah, good post!

    I will always prefer static shots and long takes. I just find films shot that way to be more memorable (Kubrick comes to mind), provided that the performances and writing are good–and that’s what I look for in movies anyway. Rapid edits and shaky-cam techniques tend to leave me with residual feelings of excitement but that’s about it.

    It’s certainly interesting, as you note, that we now require artifice (e.g. lens flares) to achieve verisimilitude. Quite a paradox, but on the other hand, it’s to be expected in the YouTube era. We’re all filmmakers now.

    In one of the epic tracking shots in “Children of Men,” the lens gets spattered with a few drops of blood as our protagonists make their way through the battlefield of the refugee camp. Whether this was accidental or not, it definitely gives the scene a verite’ feel that Alfonso Cuaron obviously approved of. I found it a little disappointing. I remember thinking, “You’re better than that, ‘Children of Men.’”

  9. On May 20, 2009, billsimmon said:

    I was going to use a guitar distortion analogy in the post but never saw where to fit it in there. The idea being that sloppy guitar playing can be disguised by lots of crunchy distortion – the slip-ups get lost in the noise.

    Alex, Re NYPD Blue “once you get over your seasickness you start to appreciate the camera…”

    My point exactly. You have to get over the effect. Verisimilitude is ruined. The camera work had the opposite effect from what was intended, no matter how much forethought went into the shooting.

  10. On May 20, 2009, Rob said:

    Ah, but maybe the noticing of it caused the dislike. If they didn’t notice it, then maybe all they felt was “cool, this feels totally real.”

    I considered this, but for me it was a bad experience. I know little if nothing about film making, and never heard the term lens flare before, yet the first thing I said to Bill upon exiting the theater was “What was that shitty strobe light thing going on?” It kept distracting me and pushing me out of the film.

    And

  11. On May 20, 2009, Mom said:

    I think it all goes back to that damn “Sesame Street,” which jumped all over the place, zoomed all over the place, and generally made parents seasick (although appreciative of what it taught). Spoiled all those future filmmakers.

    Seriously, I agree wholeheartedly with Spine. Thanks for this post, Bill.

  12. On May 20, 2009, Mom said:

    Oops. Forgot to sign off.

    Um

  13. On May 20, 2009, Rob said:

    Um = Ure Mom.

  14. On May 20, 2009, Alex C said:

    No, I mean after watching half of one episode you can then watch all remaining episodes without nausea. “Sea legs” would be a better analogy.

    Because

  15. On May 21, 2009, NickC said:

    Great post, Bill! Keep the film terms and history coming…

    >You have to get over the effect. Verisimilitude is ruined.

    Or you could say, “You have to get used to the effect. A new type of verisimilitude is gained.” This is a big part of the idea your post is about: people can get verisimilitude based on previous viewing experiences and expectations. That’s how a reproduction of the effect of a former era’s bad technology can give a good feeling (lens flare) or a bad one (Spine’s blood splatter). There’s nothing that says personal camera-less experiences are the only ones that can be attempted to be reproduced.

    >The camera work had the opposite effect from what was intended, no matter how much forethought went into the shooting.

    Only for you, on first viewing, because you are used to a different camera style. If NYPD camera style had been the forerunner, perhaps you would harrumph over the now-standard style as “too still” and/or “not natural enough”?

    The And

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