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Worldbuilding: Manufacturing Believability in Film

A film can never be more alive than when it lives within the minds of its audience. This is why I got into filmmaking, and more specifically, the pre-production side of things.

The allure is twofold and it should be noted that creating entire worlds and crafting the stories within them are two very different things. It just so happens they both come under the umbrella of worldbuilding.

Creating the Conditions for Audience Engagement

Impressive visuals are but one element of the delicate balance needed for an audience to suspend their disbelief and forget that what they are experiencing is a carefully constructed lie told in a very deliberate manner and sequence.

The goal, then, is to conjure up a sense of there being a beginning, middle and end without alluding to a predetermined outcome — else the illusion will shatter.

Worldbuilding achieves this by answering any apparent, considered or even subconscious questions a film’s viewership might have about the world, its mechanisms and its inhabitants.

How far you’re willing to go in this respect is completely up to you and I should preface this article by stating that worldbuilding need not be done on an epic scale. In fact, the mere trace of it may suffice for some on-screen stories.

Selling Others on Your Vision

Crafting a believable landscape is a time-intensive and nuanced art. Avoid the seven deadly sins of worldbuilding and focus on what your story needs most from a top-down perspective.

Accordingly, when visualising your world and characters, seek to:

1. Find Reality Through Research

Worldbuilding can be likened to the postmodernist movement in that it accepts and embraces the idea that nothing is new and there can be no new ideas. In other words, everything draws reference from the past.

In a lot of ways, this thought process is absolutely necessary when coming up with environmental designs and character concepts that feel as though they belong within the world you are building.

Want to create a world teeming with futuristic cityscapes and technological sophistication? Turn to contemporary China or Japan for inspiration.

If you want a more inhospitable world ruled by apex predators, look to the wild African savanna or the desolate and remote landscapes of South Eastern and Northern Russia.

Ultimately, your research will be the key to understanding how various backdrops inform the way the drama of the world is played out.

2. Bring Order to Chaos

Once you have all the reference material you need, establish some rules or boundaries to reign in the possibilities. You want to anticipate any egregious plot holes that could unhinge everything under scrutiny and attempt to answer them.

Rules can take the form of physiological constraints, artificial laws like the Three Laws of Robotics, dictates imposed by a totalitarian state, scientific laws like the laws of physics or a combination of these.

Grounding the story by limiting its scope may seem like a sacrifice but it’s a tried and true way of injecting depth, detail and possibly danger into the world you are building.

3. Know When to Stop

While it’s easy to get good and lost down the rabbit hole that is worldbuilding, you shouldn’t go to exhaustive lengths. A fully-realised world without any mystery left in it can make for a boring world after all.

Like conflict, mystery plays an important part in keeping the audience entertained throughout a film and this is something you don’t ever want to lose sight of.

Make sure you have answered the big questions about the world to maintain its integrity, but leave a little breathing room in places that won’t unravel the main plot or central theme.

Do that and you’ll have built something truly engaging — a world and stories that are products of the times.

Restating the Crux of Conceptualisation

Remember that at the end of the day, worldbuilding is a fragile contract; one that is drafted as the script develops, revised during conceptualisation and signed at the completion of editing.

If broken, it can leave the world devoid of emotion, spontaneity and impact. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

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