Limitations are a creative’s best friend. When there is the freedom to do absolutely anything, how are you supposed to make a decision to pick just one thing? The idea of endless possibility excites imagination, but it doesn’t help to narrow decisions down to something tangible. While possibilities are endless, it is still possible for things to be perfect. And, in filmmaking terms, that makes for difficulties in attempting to tell an actual story.
There’s been an interesting trend recently in self-imposed limitations on films via their sound. We take sound in films for granted. Since The Jazz Singer in 1927, audiences have experienced their cinema with natural sound, spoken dialogue and atmospheric music. With The Artist taking home the bulk of the awards at the Oscars, the incredible mo-cap work put into Andy Serkis’s rendition of Caesar (and all of the other monkey performers) in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and both the criticisms and plaudits bestowed on Drive for its minimal dialogue, 2011 brought new point of view to the status quo of talkie cinema that we’ve been accustomed to for years.
Before we decry the use of dialogue, and fire all of the sound recordists, it’s important to point out that these films weren’t trying to suggest the redundancy of sound in cinema. If anything, they imposed limitations on themselves in such a way that they forced the filmmakers to remember some of the basics of cinematic storytelling and to push them into making stronger narrative films. Working with limitations can encourage filmmakers to look for different ways to approach narrative, and without the use of dialogue, other solutions must be found to impart exposition, build dramatic relationships and demonstrate the mental state of the characters.
One of the biggest defences against the criticism levelled at films like Michael Bay’s Transformers series is that their plots and characters aren’t supposed to be taken seriously. You should simply switch your brain off and just enjoy them for what they are – spectacle. Yet, we-inspiring as watching giant robots kick seven shades of hell out of each other is, without characters to connect to – human or otherwise – audiences can get lost in the CG carnage. Someone needs a personality, and a journey, to bond with and take them through the story. It is in fact the potential danger of CG; you have the capacity for endless possibility, which makes it impossible for the production team to be working to exactly the same idea. This disconnect means that the filmmakers are not all on the same page, which can prove catastrophic in trying to create a consistent work.
In Rise, the audience was asked to relate to a non-human, mute character, meaning that the film had to rely on Caesar’s facial expressions and behaviour to connect with him. As a species, we’ve evolved to be able to naturally read body language, so the human characteristics Caesar demonstrated allowed audiences to successfully connect with him. The Artist had no spoken dialogue, and very few dialogue inserts, which provided a similar situation for its audience to connect with George Valentin. He was still a relatable character, the film just challenged the audience to be more aware of how they connected with him. But the most important factor here is that both of these characters had personalities, goals, a journey, and audiences responded.
What these films highlighted was how audiences need that human anchor (even if the character is not in fact human) to connect to the story, and everything else helps to tell that story. These films haven’t proved the redundancy of sound, they’ve helped identify the foundation that film needs to be built on. Inception in 2010 is often considered complex, due to its multiple dream worlds, but, as the 29th highest-grossing film of all time and an 86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it is lead character Cobb’s journey with his own guilt that makes it such an appealing film for its audience.