Bad Special Effects, Offensive Violence, and More Pitfalls in Storytelling

I previously discussed how mistakes in storytelling and character development can lead to an audience completely rejecting a story. It happens a lot. But not every crucial mistake involves mishandling these two aspects. Sometimes, a small plot point or poor choices concerning the technical aspects of a story can be just as harmful.

Even the strongest story can bottom out when it hits one of these potholes. If you’ve never encountered one of these and been shaken loose from a story before, keep reading/watching stories.

Odds are you’ll eventually hit one of these. It may shake you for a moment or disrupt your overall enjoyment. Or it may completely lose you, no matter how many times you reread/rewatch it.

Strange Cinematography/Editing

The cinematography of a film serves two purposes: to tell the story in a cohesive manner and to give greater meaning to the story unfolding on screen. However, there are many mistakes in cinematography that can cause disconnect from the viewers.

Some directors, editors, and cinematographers choose to make unconventional decisions in the film’s visuals, and it can work great! Breaking the rules can lead to exciting, surprising, and energetic visuals that can improve the story. However, not everyone is as talented as those who have found success in these choices.

Shaky cam works in the Bourne movies and unclean editing is beautiful in Goodfellas, but these are precise and thought-out decisions. Shaky cam is meant to give an added sense of realism, sparking similarities to documentaries. However, when done wrong, the viewer can’t see what’s going on or is confused about unfolding action. It seems as though it’s still the era of the shaky cam in action movies. That’s not a good thing. Unconventional editing shouldn’t necessarily be noticed during the first viewing. At least, an audience shouldn’t be able to call it out as it happens. The power of editing is in the subtle way it manipulates the audience. It shouldn’t draw attention to itself.

Don’t get me started on inexcusably bad editing! Far too many scenes are poorly pieced together, making it difficult to fully understand the direction of characters or their settings. Also, piecing the film together as a whole can suffer from poor editing. When done wrong, the story’s flow is completely interrupted. I shouldn’t be wondering how we got from point A to point C and seemed to skip point B. It should be natural and play into some sense of conventional act structure.

Human beings are attuned to the rise and fall of a three act structure. It’s practically in our DNA. Don’t violate on accident. Do so with strong purpose. However, it doesn’t always work well. Django Unchained adds on a far too unnecessary fourth act, when the climax could have easily been included in the third act with some slight rewriting of the story. It makes the film drag and seem unconventional just for the hell of it. Get over yourself, Tarantino!

Other times, some directors think that they have created a groundbreaking visual style by shining a light into the camera during practically every shot. These people need to learn that lens flares are not a style. Preferably before they make Star Wars Episode VII …

Bad Special Effects

This is somewhat relative to time, but special effects that are bad for their time are a serious error. Viewers will have a hard time investing in the film and caring about the outcome of a conflict if they actively know that what is in front of them is not real. Many films that need special effects require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. But if it does not actually seem like Iron Man is flying through the sky, then it becomes extremely difficult to suspend disbelief. It’s mindboggling how some modern movies are still being put out with poor effects when a film like Jurassic Park still looks amazing 20 years later!

The uncanny valley is the greatest example of the negative side of special effects, especially computer-generated imagery (CGI). The concept is this: robotic beings that look and act almost exactly like a human create a sense of revulsion in people.

For example: the human CGI characters in the film The Polar Express were found by many audiences to be weird and creepy, since they were very human-like, but had dead eyes and other strange features. However, the CGI human characters in The Adventures of Tin Tin were seen as extremely well done and greeted warmly. This is because they were very human, but had enough exaggerated cartoon features to keep them in the realm of animation, instead of human doppelgangers.

When encountering the uncanny valley, viewers are more likely to be wondering what is wrong with the characters they are viewing, rather than concentrating on the story. If your viewers are concentrating on what is right or wrong with the effects, or are subconsciously repulsed by them, they cannot be immersed in the story.

Oh, and if you’re a viewer who can’t accept a film’s special effects simply because they’re old, please don’t watch a movie with me. I don’t need you harping on the classic effects of Ray Harryhausen or the then-groundbreaking work done in the original Tron. You just don’t get it.

The Wrong Way to Do Violence

Violence plays a large part in many films. Actions, horror, drama, and comedy all feature it prominently. Whether you are okay with that or not is a matter of personal opinion. Like many other story features, violence is often a means to move a character through his or her arc. But there are many times when the violence on display is simply wrong for the story.

Certain types of violence should be handled with the right level of seriousness and understanding when it comes to its effects. Issues like child abuse and sexual assault are serious matters that shouldn’t be treated lightly or used as a throwaway piece. Far too often, storytellers use these issues as poorly constructed motivations for a character or, worse yet, as comedy. That doesn’t mean that they have no place in a story. However, a film like the recent Short Term 12 shows how such issues are meant to be handled: with respect and sensitivity while being honest about their effects and true nature.

In other cases, blood and gore meant to be outrageous can simply be a turn off.

There’s definitely an audience for outrageous and realistic blood and gore in movies. The success of many terrible horror films is enough proof. But shocking and grossing out the audience at the wrong time can easily cause them to back out of a film.

A movie like Drive is quiet and subdued for the majority of its runtime, but is punctuated with intense blood and gore. While this is a central aspect of the film, I found myself shocked out of the film experience and not being able to reinvest completely in the movie for several minutes. I was “seeing the edges of the screen,” or in this case, my dad’s horrified expression. Of course, this happened multiple times throughout Drive.

Not all violence will remove an audience member from the story. When the violence is an intrinsic, unavoidable part of the story, displaying it honestly and in the correct context of the story you are telling can be powerful. Saving Private Ryan didn’t shy away from the brutal realism of violence. But the film worked to show the grim and difficult realities of war. The violence was meant to make you cringe and grimace since it was not meant to be glamorous.

Novels must walk a fine line when it comes to violence, since such portrayals depend heavily on the reader’s imagination. Like all types of stories, the success of violence and its effects in a novel depends on the context.

However, readers have much more control of allowing a story to continue. Film viewers can stop a video or walk out of a theater, but even if they are repulsed by the movie, they have to actively stop the film, or else it will continue. Readers must actively propel a novel through reading it. If they don’t look at the next word, the story stops. Once violence oversteps a reader’s personal boundaries, the novel can easily come to a screeching halt. The sooner into a story, the easier it is to happen, since there is far less investment than near the end.

Personal Fears

This one varies from person to person, and no storyteller can completely avoid tapping into all viewers’ fears. Sometimes, playing off fears is right for the story, especially those that look to frighten or challenge the audience.

Other times, it’s completely accidental. In either case, it may simply be too much, leading to audience members quitting or never wanting to be involved in the story again.

However, there are some extreme incidents that are quite revolting. For example, I can’t handle faces being cut off/ripped off/bitten off. Just can’t do it. Unfortunately, it’s more common in stories than you may think. These last few years have been rough as a Batman fan with a face-loss phobia. Plus, face removal is usually a surprise in stories, so I can’t really expect it. Unless your movie is called Face/Off, because then seeing it is my mistake.

By the way, accidentally seeing a film featuring your worst fear is not a type of immersion therapy. Don’t think it’ll help you cure you. More than likely, you’ll just have a panic attack.

In the end, I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you’re telling a story, you better have a damn good reason for including these elements. Do so with caution and with great amounts of invested time. You’re the only one to blame if you end up chasing away your audience.


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