April 25, 2005

Realism Vs Believability

Recently I've been hearing a lot of talk about "Realism in Animation", so I thought I would throw in two cents.

I don't really believe in realism in animation. People talk about making something look more realistic etc. I think it's a load of crap. Actually I'd like to broaden that a bit and say that I don't really believe in realism in all film, not just animation. The line between live action and animation is getting fuzzier anyway so for the sake of this blog entry lets do away with it all together.

If movies were more realistic John McClane would have died in act one of Die Hard, Indiana Jones would never have made it out of that cave and, Frodo would have never made it out of the Shire. But they did, and audiences not only bought it but they ate it up. It's not because what the characters did was real or not real, it has to do with what the characters did was believable.

This may not seem like a big deal at first, but to me the difference is huge.

Take the Road Runner films for an example. The basic dynamic of the film is that the Road Runner will never be caught by Wile E. Coyote. For example, when Road Runner runs off the cliff with Wile E. Coyote hot on his trail, the Road Runner is able to stop in mid air, and so will the Coyote. But the Coyote will notices that he's no longer on solid ground and will fall to the ground. But the Road Runner is able to run off. This is your setup. This is your believable world. An audience would never question whether or not it's realistic because that's the way this world works.

Now lest say if in the next shot, the Road Runner runs off the cliff, notices that he's not on the ground and falls. Or worse, lets say the next sot the Coyote catches the road runner and proceeds to rip his limbs off and suck the marrow from his bones. Now you've broken the rules of the film and you've lost your believability and the audience's attention as well. You can't do that because doing so wouldn't be realistic in the world that you have created.

That's the most obvious example, other examples can be more subtle. Grover on Sesame Street for example, has a child's sensibility. He talks like a child acts like a child. Lets say he started talking about Wall Street and hookers. That might be funny, and it will work for one joke, but you've lost your believability and your audience won't find the character to be believable any more.

Another example, Bruce Willis as John McClane was able to survive Die Hard because at the beginning of the film we established that no matter how bad the situation got he would use his brute force and cleverness to get himself out of the situation. Sure he'd get hurt, but he'd live. The same was true for Indiana Jones. In fact that whole cave thing was to show that he could survive outlandish situations while other people around him could not. This is the same film making technique that Chuck Jones used in Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons. This is Believability over Realism.

Stay with me, I'm bringing this around to animation.

It doesn't end there. It also extends to how you animate a character on a film as well. If you set up your animation from the beginning to be really fast snappy actions, and stick with it, it'll be believable throughout the film. If your character is supposed to interact with real people, he/she has to fit into their world. Your character can still have fast choppy actions, but then that has to be the rules of your film. Sin City shows us that you can have characters mover around with cartoon like speed and durability but still be believable as characters. They were able to do this because they set up the rules of the their world to be this way and they maintain them. Believability is all about how you set it up and maintain it.

So why do I care? What's the difference, is it just semantics? Why am I ranting about this? Because I'd like people to make a conscious choice about the style they choose to make their films. Not just try to blindly imitate real life. I think you can animate any way you want to in a film and still be "realistic". Just as long as you set it up early in the film and obey your own rules tell the end.


jason said...

sing it, child!

I'm tired of people saying that animation isn't "realistic" or that in order for something to work it needs to move "realistically".

you're right. It should be "believable".. not "realistic". two very different meanings.

Rafi said...

spot on Ethan. Absolutely spot on. U just made my day, hopefully more people will start to understand this after reading your blog. Like Disney said - it needs to be plausible

Ward Jenkins said...

Excellent commentary, Ethan. I whole-heartedly agree. You are definitely right on about people mistaking "realism" for "believability." That's what The INCREDIBLES established: that these stylized cartoon characters seemed more "realistic" to our minds because they were more believable in the way they moved and picked up things, in the way they reacted with each other and in how they showed emotion. More so than THE POLAR EXPRESS, which, as you already know, I had big issues with. Here's a "realistic" animated movie trying to emulate real live-action people and environments. And it failed. MISERABLY. Just wasn't believable.

Great post.

Anonymous said...

Very well written essay.

Keith Lango said...


Wisdom's done cookin'! Come 'n get it!



melanie said...

awww man.
I wish i could have pulled you out of my pocket at the conference. I tried to talk about this but i didn't put it half as well as you just did.

Ethan said...

Mel, I saw your notes for the conference, you did great, and it's probably where I got most of my inspiration from.

Anonymous said...

Disney had a great behind the scenes film called "The Plausible Impossible", the title itself perfectly sums up the point you are trying to make.

I think the film is available on the beind the scenes Treasures DVD and has some great bits.