For all the imagination that goes into creating new worlds and fantastic creatures on screen, film and TV are predominantly beholden to naturalism. For these media, suspension of disbelief means being able to accept wholeheartedly what is on screen as real, at least for the purpose of the story you’re watching. Directors, VFX crews and CGI artists need to keep happy the twin deities of Spectacle and Realism: that dragon, that lizard the size of a building, that planet that no one has ever set foot on, they all need to fool us into believing that they are real.
I am not immune to the lure of big screen spectacle, and I like a well made special effect as much as the next geek. I too get pulled out of a film if the greenscreen fakery is too obvious, if the orcs, goblins or giant worms look like My First Photoshop. At the same time, there is something limiting to the extent to which we’re conditioned to expect a narrow, superficial expression of naturalism. There is something liberating to forms that are overtly unreal: even at their most real-seeming the animated worlds of, say, Hayao Miyazaki are made rather than found, and the audience is aware of this, whereas the Pandora of James Cameron’s Avatar needs to look as much as possible as if Cameron and his crew had filmed on location. And the more what we see is removed from the Real Thing (or the Convincing Fake), the more we as audiences are tasked with co-creating these worlds in our imagination.
This is one of the reasons why, as much as I like quality cinema and TV, I get something out of theatre that I only very rarely get from those other two media. Not that all theatre has it or uses it effectively, but much more than its younger sibling art forms, theatre has both a more complex and a more relaxed take on suspension of disbelief, of which going to see 27 plays at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe was a vivid reminder. We saw Kafka’s Ape, in which a captured primate that has learned to speak holds up a mirror to humanity; as impressive as the makeup and performance were, you never forget that you’re watching an actor, but then you don’t need to – you see both the actor and the ape at the same time, the performance and what it stands for. We saw Jurassic Park, a comical, beautifully poignant homage to Spielberg’s blockbuster classic in which a family, trying to work through the loss of a mother and wife, desperately act out scenes from the film when they realise that their VHS tape is gone; through the magic of theatre they’re father, daughter and son as well as clowns and big stonking prehistoric lizards, a feat both ludicrous and astounding. We saw The Bastard Queen, what could be described as the lovechild of Lord of the Flies and Spaced, in which five teenagers try to deal with the horror, tedium and dogfood eating that comes with the end of the world by means that are in turn affirming and disturbing.
This will sound obvious – and it probably is – but film and television don’t have curtain calls. The illusion of reality shall not be disturbed. And, as a result, make believe isn’t an integral part of these art forms. Film audiences often react badly to any cracks in the fourth wall, and theatricality is rarely seen on the screen. Theatre, on the other hand, often thrives on the same intriguing double vision that author Kieron Gillen wrote about on his Tumblr: “Writing is magic, and magic is trickery. You need to see how the sleight of hand is being done.” At its best, this is what theatre does so beautifully: you see something that know is a trick, you see the threads by which the floating girl is lifted from the floor (or you see that the T-Rex is just a guy carring a girl who turns a rucksack into a toothy maw), yet you buy into the magic, not in spite of the trick but because of it. You join the magician in performing magic. It’s what animation, and old-time visual effects, can do better than the best, most accomplished modern CGI, which rarely even begins to attempt it. It’s the effect a week at the Fringe has had on me: I wish that there was more of a place for make believe in cinema and television.