The Illusion of Reality

Whilst being an attentive student and reading the fascinating, informative and aptly named Television Production written by Jim Owens and Gerald Millerson, a book I thoroughly recommend for anyone interested in producing television studio or drama productions, I came across this very poignant quote:

“You must use the camera and microphone to produce what the brain perceives, not merely what the eye sees. Only then can you create the illusion of reality”

- Roone Arledge, Former Producer, ABC Television

There was something about these words that seemed to leap off the page and strike a chord that resonated inside my head. It seemed to sum up very neatly everything I had believed about the art of making films or television, and often something many people do not understand.

People often say that the camera never lies. Well in the case of creating drama (for film or television) this is simply not true: the camera always lies. You may think that in order to convey a realistic scene to an audience (say, a couple arguing for example) you could simply place a static camera pointing at the events unfolding and the audience would be able to interpret the following actions for themselves as though they were actually there. If the audience were really present then this would indeed be the case, however, as soon as you place a camera between the viewer and the scene you are immediately manipulating their interpretation of what is happening.

Using a camera you, as a director, have complete control over exactly what an audience sees and when they focus on it. Your choice of camera angle, shot type, lighting, editing and many other factors will subconsciously effect how the viewer perceives the scene. This level of complete control over an audience can work in your advantage as a filmmaker as you can construct the exact mood and ‘reality’ that you desire. Because that is exactly what you are doing: constructing a spurious setting to, to return to the opening quote, create the illusion of reality. In terms of our couple arguing, how you decided to shoot the scene will determine the emotional response you’ll stir in your audience. Whose side are you on? Who’s the underdog here? Who’s winning? All these different ways the viewer will interpret the alleged “reality” in front of them will depend on the creative choices you make.

That is all drama is: an illusion. You know full well that the woman is not dangling off the edge of a cliff; in reality she is three feet above the ground, wearing a safety harness, inside a soundstage, surrounded by a production crew; but because of the deliberate selection and arrangement of shots to create what the “brain perceives”, the audience buy into the supposed reality of the scene. Their suspension of disbelief remains firmly intact, and their buttocks remain squarely on the edge of their seats.

That is the magic of television and film. Smoke and mirrors; it’s all an illusion.

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