Creating Illusions

Stage-setDigital special effects are now used so frequently in films and television that we tend to take them for granted. Photoshop is so widely used to manipulate digital photographs that we seldom notice the changes, sometimes even when “realistic” advertising photos have missing, wrongly sized, or misaligned parts. (The website Photoshop Disasters adds funny comments to miscalculated images.)

The theater has always dealt in illusions, and we are perfectly capable of imagining that a bare stage or an abstract set (such as the one shown in the photograph) represents a fictional world. Shakespeare’s plays were first performed on bare stages: thus the characters often speak of the time of day and place.

With experience we also sometimes take theatrical conventions for granted. A proscenium stage is described as having an invisible fourth wall through which the audience views the sets and action onstage. A movie or television screen serves much the same purpose. We forget that we are looking at a flat picture plane once we begin looking “through it” to see images that seem to have dimensional qualities. The addition of 3D further heightens our feeling that we are seeing a dimensional reality, rather than the illusion of one projected onto a screen.

Stage and screen illusions depend partially on an awareness that what the audience will be able to perceive is limited. The fourth wall, for example, does not reveal what is going on above, behind, below, or to the sides of the stage. Cameras reveal only what is in front of the lens, concealing even the person operating the camera.

When actors and dancers perform onstage, they know where the fourth wall is, and they sometimes “cheat” by turning their bodies enough to insure that their speeches and actions are audible and visible to the audience. Dance studios have large mirrors so that dancers can develop some sense of how their bodies, costumes, and movements will look to the audience. In film and photographic work, actors and models learn to maintain an awareness of where the camera is, as well as the light.

Kitchen-set In most dramatic productions, the prevailing convention is that the actors act as if the audience is not there, even though actors need to retain some awareness of them. In most film situations, such as the dining room set shown in the photograph, it is impossible to ignore the presence of the equipment. The ability to perform effectively while aware of the presence of an audience, or a camera and a set full of equipment, is a difficult skill, but one that actors must master if we are going enjoy the fictional illusion that they exist in a “real” world.

[The abstract set was built for a production of Sara McKinnon, an opera by Mark Medoff and Randall Shinn. Photograph by Carol Shinn. The photograph “Film set in the dining room” is by Flickr user ricardodiaz11. Used under the Flickr Creative Commons license.]