Researching realism

Finding a definitive approach to researching the broad concept of realism was initially the largest obstacle I faced in seeking a relationship between budget and technique. Essentially the practice of making a fictional world appear realistic, it is one of those concepts that often floats by unnoticed because it is so widely used. I approached the subject by studying the roots of realism in Italian, Russian, and French films before looking at how it is used in modern films – and in the end, I found it most useful to the practical results to analyze more closely how realism is used in modern day films, especially indie films and other low budget series.

In the early films I watched, realism is more tangible as a developing technique. In Kinoglaz (1924), a Soviet propaganda film, reality for soviet villagers is portrayed as fulfilling and happy. This is one of the earliest attempts to use filmmaking to project a fictitious reality onto its viewers. In Nanook of the North (1922), a film that is widely considered the first documentary, the director warped reality to show a fantasy version of the life of an Inuk family in the arctic, having the characters act out exaggerated scenes and passing it to audiences as real life. Still, the movie was filmed on location with no script or costume/set design necessary. Perhaps even then the “realism” of the first documentary could be considered a budget necessity.

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A mother and her child in Nanook of the North, dressed in traditional Inuk clothing. Their culture was portrayed as it had been several years prior to the creation and release of the film, as primitive and technologically ignorant.

It seems that as film has developed as an artistic language in itself, realism has become less deliberate. Nowadays, audiences walk into theaters willing to accept whatever reality is shown, and still anticipating certain links with what they know to be true.

Particularly in Indie film, realism is employed often by necessity, as a cost cutter. Low budget directors use on-location filming and natural lighting to preserve costs, in turn creating a story out of the world that exists. In a lower budget film I watched called Sorry to Bother You (2018), script writing and strategic employment of realism made the satirical world of the story compelling and believable, while simultaneously cutting the budget of the film. In another low budget film, She’s Gotta Have it (1986), the director uses the city as the set and as a character, creating a filmic world that is different from the audience’s and yet still believable and full of life. Such an artistic choice was also necessary given money constraints.

In the next part of my project, I explored the way I could use budget-cutting realism techniques to develop my own filmic world, to tell a believable story that contains a realistic world of its own.