Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Creating a Cinematic Universe

I feel as though my favorite type of movies are those that give a sense of a universe.  The modern American cinema seems to be moving at exponential pace toward narrative utilitarianism and the tight scripted, action-oriented story movie.  Creating a universe provides three positive elements of just being able to exist in a world, mystery at all the back stories and outside stories and an increased sense of realism.  How does an artist go about creating a universe?  Using a unique aesthetic, whether in cinematography, editing, sound design, etc., contributes to the idea of a universe.  A solid, original soundtrack is also very helpful.  The next important element is the settings.  A dynamic setting and oftentimes location shooting, add a lot of character.  Throwaway conversations remind us that characters are people and not mere narrative devices and can be utilized in varying degrees based on the desire for tightness.  Duration can be an important factor in creating a universe.  A longer movie can give an audience member time to get lost in its world.  Lastly, a multi-movie franchise can most likely help create a universe, although this is not a guarantee.

In the book Film Art: An Introduction, a distinction is made between story and plot.  Story is:
"the set of all events in a narrative, both the ones explicitly presented and those the viewer infers." 
Plot is:
 "everything visibly and audibly present in the film before us." 
The movie itself is the plot, including all the nondiegetic (outside the world of the film) elements.  Story includes things that are not in the confines of the movie, but must be implied by the things that happen in the confines of the movie.  Two hour plots could contain varying degrees of story.  From here on, I will be using these terms generically.

There are three main positives that creating a universe, as opposed to merely telling a narrow story, gives to any movie.  The first quality and one of the most important elements in nearly all of cinema, is the increased realism and allowance for suspension of disbelief.  The pleasure of nearly every narrative cinematic experience hinges on suspension of disbelief.  I would go so far as to say it is the primary concern of most filmmakers.  Now many things can contribute to a viewer's sense of realism, but creating a universe places a characters in a natural reality and not just a neatly contrived story.  It contributes greatly to the realist effect.  It also creates a sense of intrigue at the hinted character back stories and outside universe.  The audience can fill in "holes" with their own imaginations, thus creating a greater connection to the work.  The last positive is that it creates a sense of sheer being.  The viewer can hit a meditative-like state in which they are content to merely exist in the movie's world, sometime in a constant state of present, regardless of where the story goes. 

What are the means of creating a universe?  The first means are purely formal.  It comes down to matters of cinematography, editing, sound design, etc.  Formal choices should lead to a unique and unifying aesthetic.  This could mean many things.  The possibilities are endless.  This leads to a feeling of a unique universe and not merely a conventional creation.

Another useful element is the film's music.  A music score that creates a universe, must be genuinely good, unique music and not mere mood music.  Stock music libraries online have a generic tune for creating any mood.  Emotionally manipulative, but ultimately forgettable and vacuous music abounds in mainstream cinema.  In creating a universe, parts of a score may deal with universal themes (i.e. love) which would involve some level of the generic, but there should still be a high level of originality.  A love theme, for example, could play off the collective subconscious of the audience enough to let them know what it is, but also be an original, high-quality piece of music.  The music should be almost intrinsically linked to the rest of the movie.  A good theme can be played with variations over and over again throughout a movie. 

Settings, or mise en scene to use the more technical term, can be greatly used to create a sense of universe.  To create a universe, a setting should be dynamic, full of details which do and don't have an importance to the movie's story.  Some things may eventually come to the foreground and interact with the main action while other things merely add character to a setting.  In a real world, not all people or objects are geared towards a focal point of action.  Every element has its own motivation which may have nothing at all to do with the story.  Location shooting can add to a sense of universe with it realistic settings as well as possibly candid extras, although "shot on location" is often a gimmick that doesn't undo a movie's other flaws toward authenticity.  Also, professional studios spend good money and talent on quality set design which is sometimes even better than a real location. 

The next key to creating a universe is throwaway conversations.  A real universe is dynamic and not as tightly goal oriented as classical drama.  Conversational asides, while perhaps not contributing to plot, do contribute to character development.  It can also be an opportunity to bring up something interesting that would not have come up otherwise.  It invites the spontaneity of life into what would have otherwise been uptight drama.  Throwaway conversations should most likely be a part of a unified aesthetic, though.  If an otherwise perfectly tight scripted story movie has merely one throwaway moment, it will stick out like a sore thumb and feel like a mistake.  There can also be a middle ground where dialogue is peppered with superfluous details.  This creates a sense of universe without slowing down the story.

Duration is one of the final elements of creating a universe.  The longer a movie, the more chance it has of creating a universe.  One has more time to get lost in it as well as it has more time to fit in universe-creating details.  With the short attention spans of today's audiences, a long movie can seem to be a gamble, but sometimes an audience will be engaged by greatness in spite of trends.  Hollywood's epics of yesteryear created a sense of universe largely due in part to their duration.

The last means of creating a universe is to create a franchise.  Multiple movies fill in gaps that open up a universe.  The sequels in a franchise must contain the correct balance of familiarity and originality.  Each movie must be a part of a unified universe with the rest, but not a formulaic retread of what happened in the episodes before it.  A real universe is open to all different types of stories.  This leaves room for sequels that are quite different.

A universe is one of the greatest elements of storytelling.  It is a world to be in and play in, but also a springboard for opening ourselves to our own amazing world.  

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