Why Are Stories And Films Unrealistic? – A Ramble

Well, I ended up thinking about the topic of realism and fiction a few days earlier. This is mostly because, whilst trying to read when I was in a really good mood, I suddenly noticed how miserable a lot of novels (and, by extension, films too) can be. How stories in almost every genre often tend to include lots of woe, bad luck, sorrow, suffering, angst, anger and other such things.

At first, I was just ready to write this off as just the “rules” that fiction follows. After all, sites like TV Tropes list all sorts of “unrealistic” things that turn up in films surprisingly often. These “unrealistic” things are usually there as a type of visual shorthand that instantly clarifies things for the viewer – kind of like how, in stylised comics and illustrations, water is often shown to be blue – even though it is only actually blue when it is directly beneath a blue sky or in a blue container.

But, when we see a puddle of blue liquid in a stylised drawing, we instantly think “water”. So, even though it might be unrealistic (since water is transparent, not blue), it is a way to get information across to the audience in a quick and easy fashion.

This simplification can also be used to update older things and make them more accessible to modern audiences. For example, I happened to watch this absolutely fascinating Open University video where a professor and his son recreate the original pronunciations that actors used in Shakespeare plays in the 16th century. Although these old pronunciations add a few extra rhymes and/or crude jokes to the plays, actors usually use “unrealistic” modern pronunciations these days because it is easier for modern audiences to understand them.

But, going back to what I was originally talking about, why are fictional worlds often unrealistically grim or harsh?

Well, a lot of it has to do with contrast, characters, conflict and emotional tone. In short, not only are conflicts (including everything from emotional conflict to violent conflict) an instant source of compelling drama, but putting characters into conflict also allows for a lot of extra characterisation too. For example, the classic thriller novel thing where the main character ends up suffering numerous serious injuries and yet still manages to defeat the villain is there to show the reader how tough and/or determined the main character is. If they just spent the novel sitting around and drinking tea, then the reader wouldn’t learn this about them.

On a side note (this is a ramble, after all), this is also why modern superhero and action movies often feel a lot less dramatic when compared to both thriller novels and 1980s/90s action movies. Because modern film studios are aiming for a teenager-friendly “12A”/”PG-13” rating and/or because the main characters are immortal superheroes, you don’t really see this technique used in modern films as often. Sure, the main characters might get a small scratch or two, but that’s about it. This is kind of similar to playing a computer game with the “invulnerability” cheat code turned on – fun for the first five minutes, but devoid of any feeling of challenge or suspense.

In addition to this, contrast and emotional tone also play a huge role in why stories are often unrealistically grim or miserable. In short, moments of humour, joy, love, peace etc… are at their most powerful when they are contrasted with their opposites. It’s kind of like how the glow from a screen won’t be very noticeable outdoors in the middle of the day, but can illuminate a dark room in a really cool-looking way. Light stands out a lot more when it is surrounded by darkness. And the same thing is true for the “happy” parts of stories too.

But, more than this, the “grimness” in many stories is actually there to make the reader feel better too. This works in two ways. First of all, if the reader is going through a good or an ordinary time, then the grim emotional tone of many stories will make their everyday life feel better, safer, happier etc… by comparison. Secondly, if the reader is going through a terrible time, then a grim story can either offer them hope (if the main characters triumph) or provide a “safe” way to explore and deal with their emotions, since the story takes place at a slight “distance” from the reader.

In addition to this, one of the things that stories can do better than non-fiction ever can is showing things in a “larger than life” way, illuminating things for the audience in a way that facts can’t really do anywhere near as well.

The classic example of this is probably historical fiction. Although historical stories are always at least slightly unrealistic (since they involve crafting a linear narrative out of the randomness and complexity of real history), they give readers a much better impression of what it must have been like to live in the past than a simple list of dry historical facts will. Why? Because the reader is immersed in a dramatic story. Because they get to see how people from the time thought and talked. Because the characters make them care about what happened to people back then.

Yes, historical fiction is as much about commenting on the present day as it is about the past (eg: compare how Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” presents Tudor-era Britain as a very European country, whereas S.J. Parris’ “Sacrilege” presents it as a narrow-minded and xenophobic place), but fictional versions of the past can often feel a lot more vivid, interesting and “real” than simple historical facts can. So, because they are allowed to be unrealistic, stories can often do much more than reality would allow.

So, yes, the fact that stories are “unrealistic” is actually a good thing.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Don’t Show Your Audience Everything – A Ramble

Although this is an article about a technique that will make your stories, comics etc.. more intriguing and realistic, I’m going to have to spend the next few paragraphs talking about 1990s videogame nostalgia. There’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later in the article.

A couple of days before I prepared the first draft of this article, I happened to watch two online videos about the history of videogames. One made me feel old and one made me feel like I’d been part of something special. Both made me feel like I’d only seen part of something important from a distance.

One of them was this video about the fact that a survival horror game called “Resident Evil 2” was 20 years old. 20 years! Needless to say, this fact was surreal to say the least. I remember reading pre-release previews of this game in magazines, for heaven’s sake!

Even though I didn’t play this game until about three years after it was released (due to price, platform etc.. reasons), this game has had a significant role in my life history (eg: in various highly indirect ways, it played a crucial role in my current musical tastes, my tastes in fiction, my decision to be a creative person etc.. If the game hadn’t existed, I’d be a very different person). And the fact that it was 20 years old just made me feel absolutely ancient.

The other video was a retrospective of the history of the first-person shooter genre. This video contained footage from videogames from my childhood (including some SNES and N64 games), in a montage about how games evolved. As I watched this, I was filled with conflicting emotions.

I felt proud that I’d been lucky enough to grow up during a critical part of the emergence a new cultural medium. But then, I realised that my nostalgia about this montage was time-shifted somewhat. When I was playing SNES games during my 1990s childhood, the next consoles had already come out. When I was playing the Nintendo 64, the next consoles had already come out etc.. Likewise, all of the PC games in the montage were things I played at least 1-3 years after they were new.

In both cases, there was a sense that I hadn’t seen everything. That I’d only glimpsed part of something great from a distance. I hadn’t played “Resident Evil 2” when it was a new game (but I’d read about it in magazines at the time). I’d only played a few key games in the history of gaming, a few years after they were new etc.. Yes, I felt glad to have grown up around these things but there was a sense that I hadn’t seen everything.

Although this initially felt depressing, I suddenly realised that it wasn’t a bad thing. It was simply just a part of being human. No-one can see literally everything that happens.

And, if you’re telling a story, it’s important to bear this in mind. Yes, it can be tempting to give the audience an omniscient view of literally everything and to make sure that they are present during literally every significant event in your story. But, this isn’t realistic.

By occasionally leaving a few things at a distance (eg: your characters hear about something happening after it has happened, or only see the after-effects of an important story event) or showing your characters discovering something important later than you would expect, not only do you leave more to your audience’s imaginations but you also add an extra degree of realism to your story. After all, in real life, this happens all of the time. No-one can be everywhere at once, or completely “up to date” with literally everything.

Yes, this probably has to be handled carefully in fiction (eg: yes, you should still show your audience some significant events) but it can be a way to add a bit of interest or “realism” to a story or comic.

For example, in stories, games, film etc… in the fantasy genre, some of the most significant events in a story will often be relegated to the backstory. They will be the “legends” or “myths” of a particular story, which the main characters only encounter many years after they have happened. So, this technique can be used without getting in the way of the main story too much.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Art And Reality – A Ramble

Well, although I’m busy making a webcomic mini series at the time of writing this article, I thought that I’d talk about the relationship between art and reality today. This is mostly because I happened to read this absolutely fascinating BBC article about courtroom artists in both the US and the UK.

The interesting thing about this type of art is that it really highlights the complicated relationship between art and reality. Due to the short amount of time these artists apparently have to make their art, courtroom sketches rarely look “100% realistic”. Yes, their styles don’t look too cartoonish, but they often remind me of the art found in a rather prestigious graphic novel.

Yet, as the BBC article points out, these pieces of art often serve as a valuable form of documentation for things like court cases and some political proceedings. But, the article also shows several examples of when courtroom artists have got the likeness of famous plaintiffs or defendants hilariously wrong. But, as anyone who has ever tried to paint or draw from life (or even paint or draw someone famous) will tell you, realistic likenesses can be surprisingly difficult sometimes.

But, it also raises some interesting questions about reality and art in general. The general rule here is that art isn’t meant to be “100% realistic”. Yes, there’s nothing wrong with using a more realistic style but, if you want an entirely accurate and realistic picture of something, then you’re better off taking a photograph. The whole point of art is to either show reality filtered through the perspective of the artist or to show part of the artist’s imagination, or both.

Art is kind of like “reality plus”, with an artist carefully choosing things like perspective, colour schemes, composition etc.. in order to capture the essence of how they feel about something. For example, here’s a preview of a digitally-edited painting of mine that will be posted here next month. It was inspired by my memories of Halloween 2008, yet my actual memory differs somewhat from the picture itself:

This a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here on the 7th June.

I’ve tried to capture the excitement of the evening through the use of vivid colours. I’ve placed extra emphasis on the awesome-looking lighting in the nightclub’s underground area. I also chose to use a slightly unusual composition/perspective in order to both fit more visual detail into the painting and also to give the impression that there are lots of things happening. The composition also allowed me to include a slight visual reference to “The Wizard Of Oz” too. The painting is a fairly accurate depiction of the emotions that this memory evokes in me, even if some of the precise details are probably wrong.

So, yes, the relationship between art and reality is more complicated than it might seem. But, there’s certainly something interesting about art that is made instead of a photograph. Whether it’s getting a glimpse into an artist’s perspective on a criminal trial or even an artistic reproduction of a politically-important photo that the press was banned from reprinting, art based on reality is really fascinating.

Plus, of course, these types of art also give us a fascinating glimpse at things that we’re not “supposed” to see. This actually makes the scenes in question even more interesting since the audience often has to use their imaginations in order to work out what the “real” scene actually looked like.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

What Can Old Computer Games Teach Us About Painting And Drawing From Imagination? – A Ramble

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about the differences between painting from imagination and painting from photographs/life etc.. This is mostly because I’ve found a brilliant computer game-related analogy for it that I want to share.

If you’ve played computer games from the 1990s/early-mid 2000s, you probably already know the difference between FMV and in-game cutscenes. If you don’t, then I should probably explain. Older games generally tended to get story information across to the player through animated video segments. However, these came in two very different varieties.

FMV (full motion video) was often created using high-end graphics software, then recorded and inserted into the game. This allowed games to include CGI footage that looked years ahead of the graphics in other contemporary games. Since these scenes required a lot of resources and preparation to make (and took up a lot of memory), they usually tended to be restricted to short introductory and ending movies. They look a bit like this:

This is a screenshot from a FMV sequence in “Deus Ex: Invisible War” (2003). Even though this footage is from about fifteen years ago, it could almost pass for something from a modern game. Almost.

In-game cutscenes on the other hand, are animated scenes that are created using the same technology as the rest of the game. As such, they are considerably easier, quicker and cheaper for game developers to make. They take up less memory and they generally appear a lot more frequently than FMV in old games. However, they don’t really look as realistic or as good. Compare this example from “Deus Ex: Invisible War” to the FMV screenshot above:

This is a screenshot from an in-game cutscene in “Deus Ex: Invisible War” (2003). As you can see, the graphics look a lot less realistic than the FMV sequences.

So, why am I mentioning this? Well, one of the endearing things about old games is that they’ll often dazzle the player with an almost-realistic introductory FMV video, only to then show the player the actual game (which looks nowhere near as realistic). If you’ve played a lot of old games, you’ll be used to this. If you haven’t, then it will probably be at least somewhat disconcerting.

But, what does it have to do with art? Well, painting from imagination is much more like an in-game cutscene and painting from life/photos etc… is more like a FMV sequence. After all, if you’re painting from life or a photo, it’s easy to make your art look realistic since you can just copy what you see. Like this:

“Random Desk Still Life” By C. A. Brown

You also don’t have to worry about finding inspiration, since you have an “inspiration” directly in front of you when you’re painting. There’s a reason why a lot of famous artists tend to do this whilst making art.

However, painting from imagination takes a lot more work. You have to come up with an idea and then you have to work out how to paint it. Chances are, even with a few years of practice, it won’t look as realistic as a still life or a painting from a photo. And this can be somewhat dispiriting. But, it shouldn’t be.

“From The 1990s” By C. A. Brown

If you paint from imagination, then you can do so much more! Yes, it might not look as “realistic” but you aren’t limited by what exists in real life. Like how a FMV video is often less interactive than an in-game cutscene, paintings from photos and/or life are limited by the source materials you can find.

Not only that, if you can paint even vaguely well from imagination then you’ll find making paintings from life/photos fairly easy. However, if you only make art from photos/life, then you’re probably going to find painting from imagination to be extremely challenging.

It’s kind of like how even the worst computer and/or video games of the past could include cool-looking FMV sequences, but a really great game could include few to no cutscenes whatsoever. Anyone in the games industry could make cool-looking FMVs, but it took real talent to make an enjoyable game and/or compelling in-game cutscenes.

What I’m trying to say here is that the underlying imagination behind making art matters more than how “realistic” your paintings or drawings look. Yes, you should strive to improve (just like how in-game cutscenes have gradually got more realistic over the years), but if you have to focus on either painting from imagination or painting from life/photos, choose imagination. Your art might not look as good, but it will make you a better and more creative artist.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Another Cool Thing Computer And Video Games Can Teach Artists

Well, although I’ve written about how playing computer and video games can be a useful educational experience for artists at least a few times before, I was recently reminded of yet another way that they can be useful when it comes to learning about making art.

One of the cool things about being slightly behind with gaming (originally by circumstance and now partially by choice) is that I’ve played quite a few older games from the 1990s and early-mid 2000s. One of the interesting things about older games, especially games with 3D graphics, is that they couldn’t be “100% realistic”.

In fact, due to the technology of the time, they sometimes couldn’t even be 50% “realistic”. Here are a few screenshots to show you what I mean:

This is a screenshot from “Resident Evil – Director’s Cut” from 1997. Notice how the static pre-painted background contrasts with the more polygonal 3D character models.

This is a screenshot from “Alone In The Dark”, an early 3D game from 1992 (and something of an inspiration for “Resident Evil”). Notice how the 3D graphics look incredibly primitive and cartoonish.

This is a screenshot from “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” from 2004. The 3D graphics look a bit more realistic, but are still very noticeably computer graphics.

So, why have I mentioned this and what does it have to do with art? Well, it’s because realism isn’t everything. Many of these old 3D games still manage to be dramatic and/or atmospheric because they aren’t photo-realistic. Because the art teams behind these games couldn’t rely on almost photo-realistic graphics to immerse the player into the game, they actually had to use all sorts of interesting artistic and design techniques instead.

For example, if you look at some of the screenshots, you’ll see that they use things like distinctive colour palettes, clever lighting choices, interesting character designs and cleverly-designed backgrounds in order to make everything more visually interesting and to compensate for the lack of “realism”.

“Realistic” art is both one of the most difficult and one of the easiest types of art to make. If you’re painting from imagination, then it’s ludicrously hard. But, if you’re painting from life or from photographs, then you can create a surprising amount of realism with just a few years of art practice. For example, here’s a still life of mine from 2015/16 (after 3-4 years of regular art practice) and it still stands up fairly well to this day:

“Cute Turtle And DVDs” By C. A. Brown

Yet, at the same time, making “realistic” art can limit your creativity somewhat. Most of the art that I make isn’t really very “realistic” and I find that this allows me a lot more freedom when it comes to things like colour choices, lighting, composition, subject matter etc… Like this:

“Death Takes A Holiday” By C. A. Brown

“Backstreets” By C. A. Brown

Playing old 3D games will show you that there’s more to art than “realism”. At the end of the day, old 3D games are such great fun because of all of the interesting stuff that is happening in them.

Old 3D games are a lot more memorable because the graphics look noticeably “artificial”, which clearly shows that they were planned and designed by an artist. Likewise, each old 3D game sort of has it’s own unique “personality” because of the artistic decisions made by designers who couldn’t make their games look realistic.

In other words, although “realistic” art tends to get taken a lot more seriously, playing some old 3D games can show you that “unrealistic” art can often make your work more unique, more visually interesting and more creative. It forces you to focus more on things like visual storytelling and on making conscious choices about things like lighting, composition etc.. in your art, because you can’t just rely on realism to dazzle your audience.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Does Art Have To Contain Realistic Proportions ?

A little while before originally writing this article, I was listening to a radio programme on the BBC’s website when I slowly realised that the background illustration for the program (an “Alice In Wonderland”-themed digital painting of Alice falling down the rabbit hole) wasn’t technically correct. Alice’s head was too narrow and her legs seemed to be shorter than they should have been.

And, yet, it was still a very dramatic illustration that conveyed a sense of drama and movement. It was also a great example of how art doesn’t have to be technically correct in order to be dramatic or striking.

Distortions are an essential part of making art. Even if you’re making a technically “realistic” piece of art, it is going to include some distortions because of things like perspective etc.. For example, if you’re painting someone stretching their arm towards the audience, then their hand will have to be larger than their head in order to convey this accurately. Here’s a very quick diagram I made in MS Paint to show you what I mean:

Although this quickly-scribbled picture is only roughly realistic, the person’s hand is taller than their head since it’s supposed to be closer to the viewer.

So, artists can add extra drama to their artwork by exaggerating these distortions slightly. After all, art isn’t photography. Art doesn’t always have to be an exact accurate reproduction of the real world. Art is meant to evoke emotions, to tell stories, to spark the imagination etc… So, exact precise realism isn’t necessary, and it can actually get in the way of the message that an artist is trying to get across to the audience.

For example, here’s a cartoonish painting of Sherlock Holmes that I made a couple of months earlier (and posted here a couple of weeks ago). His arms are too long and his head is too small, but this is designed to make him look lean and spindly, like some kind of otherworldly intellectual creature. This distortion also places emphasis on both the mysterious document and the iconic pipe in his hands.

“A Curious Case” By C. A. Brown

In addition to this, there’s also the subject of experience and skill. As an artist myself, I’ll admit that I’m not an expert at drawing realistic proportions. Yes, thanks to a few years of regular art practice, I’m a lot better at it than I used to be – but it often isn’t my primary concern when making art. Usually, my main concern is whether the picture as a whole looks good. As long as a picture looks vaguely right, then I’ll consider it a success.

And I think that this idea of “vaguely right” is a good rule for distortions and “unrealistic” proportions in art, since it allows these distortions to have a dramatic effect without confusing the audience too much. For example, the “Alice In Wonderland” illustration that I described at the beginning of the article looks fairly realistic at first glance, but it only seems unrealistically proportioned when you actually think about it carefully.

But, why aren’t these distortions always noticeable at first glance? Simply put, this is because the events of the picture are more interesting than thinking carefully about the technical details of the picture.

Because art is often meant to tell a story or create a mood, this is the thing that we usually look at first. Likewise, because the style of most art isn’t photo-realistic, we’re more likely to excuse other unrealistic elements of the art (eg: incorrect proportions) as part of an unrealistic style.

So, yes, art doesn’t always have to include realistic proportions.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why Realism Is Pointless – A Ramble

2017 Artwork realism is pointless

The day before I wrote this article, I happened to see a video review of an old computer game called “Jones In The Fast Lane”. This was a stylised electronic board game from the 1990s that is supposed to be based on real life.

Despite the game’s quirky humour, shortcuts, 1990s stuff, game mechanics etc.. it was obviously meant to be at least slightly “realistic”. And, my god, what a boring game it seemed to be!

This, naturally, made me think about the subject of realism in art, stories, comics, computer games, movies, TV shows etc… and why it should be avoided like the plague!

For all of the interesting things that happen (and have happened) in the world – 99% of the time, life is boring. It’s mundane. It’s repetitive. It’s dreary. If it wasn’t, then the world wouldn’t contain more novels than any one person could ever hope to read, more movies than one person could ever hope to watch, more games than any one person could hope to play etc…

I mean, there’s a good reason why even traditional soap operas have to add lots of ridiculously melodramatic storylines, arguments etc.. to their depictions of everyday life. If they were a lot more “realistic”, then they’d be ten times more dull than they already are.

Even with this, their storylines seem annoyingly dreary, trite, mawkish, tawdry, depressing, melodramatic etc… when compared to technically similar TV shows that are set in more imaginative locations ( “Game Of Thrones” springs to mind for starters).

When a TV show puts the effort into creating an entirely imaginary fictional world that is interesting because it’s different from the real world, then it can get away with “soap opera”-like storylines because of all of the extra “unrealistic” imaginative stuff that clearly says “this is a story! It isn’t even pretending to be like real life!”

Even comics and cartoons that are set in “realistic” locations are often interesting because of their unrealistic elements – their stylised art, their exaggerated characters etc…

Whether you’re part of the audience or the person creating it – stories, art, games etc… are timelessly interesting because they allow us to either escape from reality or to reshape it in some way or another.

This is best summed up by an awesome quote from a short story called “An Extra Smidgen Of Eternity” by Robert Rodi (which can be found in an anthology called “The Sandman: Book Of Dreams” Edited by Neil Gaiman and Ed Kramer).

Although the story itself will probably make you cry, and the ending won’t make complete sense unless you’ve read the fifth “Sandman” comic, it contains one of the best quotes about creativity and imagination that I’ve ever read.

The quote is: “Stories are hope. They take you out of yourself for a bit, and when you get dropped back in, you’re different – you’re stronger, you’ve seen more, you’ve felt more. Stories are like spiritual currency.”

All forms of creativity allow us to either give our own imaginations physical form, or to see the contents of other people’s imaginations. Imagination is one of the many things that stops the mundane repetitiveness of everyday life from becoming emptily depressing.

Merely copying reality doesn’t take much imagination and it doesn’t really give that much to the imaginations of the audience. So, yes, “realism” is totally and utterly pointless!

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂