It is truly remarkable that people can sit down in front of a movie
screen, and become totally immersed in a story that they know to be
fiction, that is depicted by models that they know to be artificial,
and that is presented as a projected image on a flat white surface.
And yet almost everyone is capable of immersing themselves deeply in
the experience, and (as you put it) "envisaging the imaginary".
This effect is not, of course, restricted to the movies. People can
experience it whilst reading a book, listening to music or poetry,
watching an opera or ballet, or viewing works of art.
The effect was known long before movies were invented, and it was
Samuel Taylor Coleridge who gave it a name in 1817 when he referred to
it in chapter 14 of "Biographia Literia" as
That willing suspension of disbelief for the moment,
which constitutes poetic faith.
SS > Factoids > Quotations
Coleridge's observation "struck a chord", and the term "willing
suspension of disbelief" has been in use since then.
"His original turn of the phrase was in reference to the reader's
response to poetry, but everyone immediately realized he had
summarized most of the human experience of art generally. So the
phrase ? and the idea ? entered world culture. Where it still resides
as one of those handy terms. Whether you?re talking about a Spielberg
movie, a Stephen King novel, a twitch-em-up video game, a
multi-decibel rave, or a simple TV sitcom, they all require the same
thing of spectators/ participants: a willing suspension of disbelief.
That is if the spectator/participant wants to enjoy the experience.
"It?s why we?re so happy to pay for such experiences, why we seek them
out. They can take us away from ourselves for a while. Escape. We
forget our life and become contented, immersed observers of another
"The world we enter may be great (Hamlet) or small (South Park),
grandiose (Wagner) or trivial (Goldilocks). No matter. Our minds are
for a while set free and we enjoy a dream created by others for our
"Two centuries have passed since Coleridge nailed the idea. He got it
as surely and neatly as Michael Jordan got a slam-dunk."
"The Willed Suspension of Belief" by Douglas Milburn
So how does this "willing suspension of disbelief" work, and why are
humans so good at it?
To answer that, we need to look at the role that imagination plays in
human existence, and why humans have such a highly developed ability
for imagination. It's a common assumption that humans just use
imagination for games, but that's not the case. Consider these ways of
1. You are driving, and as you pass through an intersection you see
another vehicle heading towards you. You take evasive action, but in
order to know which way to steer you need to IMAGINE the path that the
oncoming vehicle is going to take.
2. You are considering who you should visit at Christmas. You recall
some previous visits from memory, and IMAGINE yourself in those
settings, in order to help to make a decision.
3. You are about to slide the salt cellar across the table to someone
who needs it. Your brain needs to IMAGINE the salt cellar being moved
in order to command your muscles to move in such a way that would
achieve the desired result.
4. When children play games (such as "shopkeeper") they IMAGINE
themselves in a role that is different from their normal existence.
Imaginative play is necessary for children's development.
5. We can become motivated by IMAGINING an outcome: when we see a
picture of ice cream we imagine its taste and are motivated to buy
some; a politician imagines victory and is motivated to stand for
office; a runner imagines the finish line and is motivated to strive
6. We need to IMAGINE in order to grasp the meaning behind spoken
communication. If someone tells you that a big lion is standing behind
you, the image that forms in your mind will tell you exactly what they
The link between imagination and effective problem solving is well
established. People with active imaginations tend to do well at
"Problem solving involves both analytical and creative skills:
analytical in comprehending the problem and the relationships within
the original situation, and in checking the results of results of each
step, and creative in devising the solution. Imagination plays a large
part in both of these skills: problem solving requires the ability to
imagine a chain of intermediate steps and their consequences. For
example to solve the problem of crossing a river by chopping down a
tree and laying it across the river appears to be quite simple.
However it would be very difficult to arrive at for someone who has
not previously walked along a fallen tree, seen a tree laying across a
chasm, knows that they can chop a tree down and knows how to manhandle
a felled tree."
Problem Solving ? Learning and Teaching Theory
So it's not surprising that humans have evolved to have well-developed
imagination abilities. Humans also have the ability to take some of
what they already know, and to imagine it in a completely different
"True creativity in problem solving lies in lateral thinking, that is
in the ability to imagine the results of processes in different
contexts to those previously experienced." (from the same page quoted
So it is not too surprising that the "different context" referred to
above could even be a spaceship depicted by a model in a movie, and
that we can empathise with the characters playing out the story as
though it was real, even though our own day-to-day experience is in an
entirely different context.
Even Albert Einstein wrote that "Imagination is more important than knowledge":
The human imagination is running all the time. So all we have to do is
to remove our "day-to-day" stimuli, and our imagination will go to
work on whatever stimuli are left ? such as the model spaceship.
That's why we can't really "get into" a movie or book if we are
thinking (imagining) what to cook for supper. But once we settle down
into a chair, our mind no longer needs to imagine our own movement.
Once we dim the lights, our mind does not need to form a mental image
of our environment. Once we relax, our mind does not need to devote
its energy to imagining what to cook for supper etc.
The main sensory input we have is then from the movie, and our
imagination is free to work on it with minimum distraction. Under
these conditions, our imagination can construct a world where the
spaceship is real, and where we are totally immersed in what is going
on ? not just with the setting but also with the plot. Now we share
the joys and tragedies of the characters, while our imagination is
constantly anticipating the outcome ("Will they fall in love?", "What
if the spaceship crashes?" etc).
Even so, there is a limit to the willing suspension of disbelief:
"Imagine for a moment, that you are watching Murder She Wrote reruns.
In another room the children are watching a Christmas fantasy. Then,
in the middle of your program, Santa whisks in, gives Jessica Fletcher
a present, then literally flies off on his sleigh. Wouldn?t you feel
cheated, as if the program had somehow "broken the rules?" Yet it
wouldn?t bother you to see Santa flying around on the other program.
That?s because the "rules" are different for a murder mystery than
they are for a fantasy. In the literary world, we call these rules
"conventions," and authors learn how to play by the appropriate rules
if they want to keep the audience?s good will and attention.
"This pre-arranged agreement between author and audience to play by
the rules of the genre enables the audience member to set aside a
certain level of skepticism for the purpose of enjoyment. Critics call
this voluntary credibility the "willing suspension of disbelief." Put
even simpler, the author and audience are playing "let?s pretend"
together. "Let?s pretend that a fairly normal woman keeps encountering
murderers who resemble has-been television actors." Or, in the case of
the Christmas program, "Let?s pretend that Santa and his flying
reindeer are real." Once you?ve established the ground-rules,
everybody can sit back and enjoy the show."
Conventions and Willing Suspension of Disbelief
Different people have different limits to how far they can go with the
willing suspension of disbelief. A scientist might be enjoying being
fully-immersed in a space film, but the sudden realization that "we
wouldn't really hear the spaceship imploding because it's surrounded
by the vacuum of space" would suddenly "snap the scientist out of the
suspension of disbelief", and probably run the movie for that person.
For someone else it might be the realization that there are no toilets
on the spaceship, or that a character had their hair parted on the
left in one shot then on the right in the next shot.
"Breaking the Willing Suspension of Disbelief"
"Compelling stories are ones you just can't help but believe, at least
while you're reading them. ... Willing suspension of disbelief is a
fundamental requirement of all fiction. Even if the story is one about
modern day life, you have to be willing to say "I will forget, for the
moment, that the author is making all of this up" in order to fully
appreciate the story."
"Science as Storytelling"
We've seen that humans are very good at imagining, and that they can
imagine effectively even in a context different from their normal
experience, but why do they enjoy going to the movies or getting
immersed in a great book?
It seems to me that because we as humans are driven by sensory input,
we crave it when we can get it, and we suffer when we are deprived of
it. Watching a movie or reading a book is a passive task that denies
us some sources of sensory input, but replaces them by a very rich
stream of input that can effectively trigger our imaginations. That's
why we get a thrill from a dramatic scene such as a car chase and may
even find ourselves gripping the sides of the chair during the more
I've presented this answer in general terms, because I think that's
what you are looking for. But if you would like an analysis of the
science and psychology behind the willing suspension of disbelief, you
may wish to read this article:
"The Willing Suspension of Disbelief: A Neuro-Psychoanalytic View"
by Normal N. Holland
In this article, Norman Holland looks at the willing suspension of
disbelief ? starting from a description of the effect and building
towards an explanation in terms of how different parts of the brain
function and communicate. The article is too lengthy and detailed to
summarise it here, but I recommend that you read it if you are
I hope this answer addresses the question in the way that you had
hoped ? but if not, please request clarification and I'll do my best
to meet your needs.
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Clarification of Answer by
26 Apr 2004 09:43 PDT
I'm happy to provide you with information relating to the use of
models (such as spacecraft) in the movies, and how they can be made to
The quick answer to how models can be made to seem real is "attention
to detail". The longer answer is that attention must be given to many
kinds of detail, for a model to "work well".
Christian Cox details some of these techniques here:
Spaceship Techniques in Animation
Christian's techniques include bevelling, nurnies, good edges,
lighting, thrusters and weapons.
Bevelling is replacing a 90-degree edge by two 45-degree edges.
Picture a traditional rocket such as the Saturn V, and note how the
smaller upper stages join to the fatter lower stages. The stages are
connected by a 45-degree sloping section ? the bevel. Effective
bevelling makes a model look like a believable engineered object
rather than looking like a few shapes glued together.
What's a nurnie? It's a little block of detail. It could be a group of
rivets, a hatch, a tiny window, an aerial, a sensor, a solar panel, a
docking marker, a visible bolt, a calibration mark, a shadowed line
separating two panels, etc. Nurnies help to define the ship's history,
purpose and ownership. Every real ship has lots of nurnies, and so
must a scale model if it is to be believable.
Good edges are important. Like bevelling, they indicate an engineered
object. Real-life edges are rarely razor-sharp, nor are they
obviously-curved. Usually they are just one step back from being
sharp. They are well-defined, yet slightly flattened or even rough at
the very edge, at a minute size just at the limit of what we can see.
Lighting adds more realism. Every real spaceship would be lit inside,
and a realistic model spaceship must look as though it is lit inside.
Soft, diffuse lighting must appear to "leak", almost "ooze", from the
windows. Science-fiction spacecraft are often expected to have
external lighting too, even though we don't normally find this on real
NASA craft. It's more suggestive of the wingtip lights on a fighter
jet ? and on the right spacecraft model it can look great!
When people think of space travel, they often imagine a rocket firing
its thrusters. A good set of thrusters on a model spacecraft can
trigger that association. Christian Cox writes that "nothing is better
than a pair of huge, mighty thrusters".
And if it's a "shoot-em-up" film, then of course the spacecraft need
weapons. These will look realistic if they are heavy, big, and perhaps
with turrets for 360-degree firing.
Space models are often gleaming and pristine ? but it can look even
more stunning to add a few subtle imperfections. A tiny meteorite
dent; a small piece of metal from the first stage that didn't properly
get detatched; a pipe that has been bent and then "bodged" back into
place; the very faintest touch of corrosion.
"A notable feature of the Star Wars films is that they portray a world
full of grime and technology that looks like it has been used for
years, not the sleek, futuristic world typical of earlier science
fiction films. In one of his many interviews on the making of Star
Wars, Lucas told of rubbing the new props with dirt to make them look
Star Wars ? Wikipedia
Getting the color exactly right can make a big difference. The
materials used for spacecraft show distinctive colors under the harsh
light of space. Here's a site dedicated to showing the colors of
real-life spacecraft, with the intention of helping modellers get the
colors "just right" on their models:
Colors of Real Spacecraft and Experimental Aircraft
The color of glass is equally important. In space we often find
gold-tinted glass, and using this on a model gives it an extra dose of
Sometimes, though, we see a movie using models that don't follow these
rules. Sometimes it's a low-budget film with really terrible models ?
but if the plot is really engrossing we are not bothered by the
quality of the models because we WANT to suspend our disbelief. But
the rest of the movie has to be really good for this to work.
Occasionally, the model-maker is not even aiming for realism and is
able to take greater liberties. The Starship Modeler site describes
the models used for the 1960's Lost In Space TV series:
"The TV show's spacecraft and vehicles were designed with an eye to
what looked cool, and not what might actually work"
Starship Modeler: Modeling Various Sci-Fi Spacecraft
They could get away with this easily, because the space race aroused
such excitement in the 1960's that most viewers were eager to immerse
themselves in a series like Lost In Space without being too fussy
about the details ? even though we would laugh if we viewed it with a
criticizing eye instead of with a thirst for entertainment.
It's not just professionals who make spaceship models. The DMOZ
directory lists dozens of sites for hobbyists who enjoy making their
own spacecraft models:
Recreation: Models: Scale: Science Fiction
If you'd like to have a go yourself, there are websites that show you
how. Here's the design for a relatively simple space station:
Modeling Techniques for spacecraft
and here are some more advanced techniques from the same author:
Advanced Techniques for Spacecraft Modeling
Finally, for answers to just about every question related to
techniques of model-making you can see this site:
rec.models.scale Frequently Asked Questions
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