How modest means can let the best ideas breathe
You may have heard of the unspoken contract we all make with a storyteller; give me a gripping tale and I’ll forget that all its amazing events are a construct of your imagination. The 19th-century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it “the suspension of disbelief,” a phrase that has become tightly woven into all dimensions of storytelling, from short stories to Sci-Fi movies.
As an audience, if we don’t commit to this contract, how can we enjoy ourselves? Will you make friends by standing up in a darkened cinema, pointing at the screen and shouting, “Ladies, gentlemen! Do not be fooled! That explosion you witnessed was a complex binary code, enhanced by 3D sound effects! And the actor who just died? He was only pretending!”
As an audience, we want our fantasies to become plausible spectacles. To achieve this, filmmakers voraciously adopt new technologies, from highly mobile digital cameras to the latest versions of Computer Generated Imagery or CGI. It’s the reason why some animated films are considered serious works of art, why superheroes can instantly heal from bullet wounds, and yet reveal touching moments of frailty and self-doubt. The best movies have that power, but it often takes hundreds of people and millions of dollars to suspend the disbelief of a contemporary audience.
And after all that effort, there’s no guarantee they’ll buy the ruse, with high expectations hardened by watching thousands of CGI explosions.
What becomes more important, as special effects seem to hit a ceiling of plausibility, is what kept our ancestors enraptured when they sat around a fire thousands of years ago; the power of the story and the presence of the storyteller. For this reason, films shot on a fraying shoestring can move beyond the modesty of their budgets and reach a global audience. One perfect example of this was shot in just over a week for the cost of a BMW 5 Series in The US.
Released in 1999, The Blair Witch Project has a dark edge conveyed by its shaky, handheld camera work, a technique that heightens its sense of urgency and anticipation. By presenting the film as recovered video footage from a band of missing young filmmakers, the producers dispensed with the need for high-quality cinematography and celebrity casting which, given their limitations, was just as well.
With only eight days of shooting and a budget of around US$60,000, The Blair Witch Project went on to gross over US$248 million worldwide, making it the most successful independent film of all time. That’s not bad for a horror movie featuring grainy, unfocused scenes of terrified people, but no horror to speak of.
Still, I think the film works not because of what you can see but what you can’t; if the Blair Witch was visible, wore a Halloween costume and came staggering out of the bushes on a broomstick, then I think she would have been a cheap curiosity rather than a critical and financial success. The story thrives on suspense caused by events outside the frame, not thrills contained within.
To me, The Blair Witch Project proves that taking the time to develop a well resolved and original idea gives it the power to withstand a modest presentation. A stage production I watched a few years ago with my wife and daughter struck me as another good example of this concept. Called ‘The Secret Life Of Suitcases,’ it formed part of a children’s festival at the Esplanade – Theatres On The Bay, Singapore’s leading cultural venue.
The play focused on a puppet called Larry, an obsessively busy office drone who inspected and stamped an endless stream of documents until an ordinary-looking suitcase was delivered to his office. Once opened, the suitcase transported him onto a tropical beach and then into outer space where he met quarks; elementary particles in the form of shaggy hand puppets working in synchronicity, pushing Larry towards subtle opportunities to feel free, make friends and be happy, opportunities he often missed because he was too busy to follow them.
Reading this, you can imagine the hours of coding and processing power needed if this was an animated film. Instead, let me share three modest yet ingenious ways the Scottish puppeteer Ailie Cohen made this story breathe onstage:
1. Suitcases For A Set
The play had a simple set design including a stack of odd suitcases, a tubular metal frame with exposed light bulbs, and a set of large, nondescript boxes covered in brown mock leather. When brought together, these boxes provided a strong base for the play’s action, as well as a place to mount various puppets and set pieces. A quick glance below also revealed these boxes had castor wheels, making them easy to move around.
2. Scenic T-Shirts
Instead of relying on elaborate backdrops for their scene changes, the two performers put on different t-shirts printed with lush images of ocean waves, tropical islands, and distant galaxies. Not only was this a novel costume choice, it effectively signaled transitions within the story.
3. Semi-Automatic Sound Design
The play’s eclectic sound design — running the gamut of rocket sounds to emotive piano sketches — was delivered via a laptop concealed by a box onstage and controlled by a foot pedal, quickly pressed by one of the performers as they moved past, limiting their reliance on an expensive technical crew.
I come from a theatre background, so I’m hard-wired to recognize such devices, yet I happily lost myself in this story, as did my daughter, who begged me to recount different scenes from the play for days afterward, even though she had seen them herself.
Like the best stories, the most compelling ideas also need space to breathe; they don’t need to be suffocated by amazing pyrotechnics. So, if you genuinely care about an idea and know instinctively that it can work, take the time to figure out how you could realize it on a modest scale; there are enough successful indie films and inspiring low budget plays out there to prove people will suspend their disbelief.
Paul Falzon is the co-founder and director of Think.Story.Speak