Projections Volume 8, Issue 2, Winter 2014: 1–25 © Berghahn Journals
doi: 10.3167/proj.2014.080202 ISSN 1934-9688 (Print), ISSN 1934-9696 (Online)
Blood Splats and
Reported Realism and
the Perception of Violence
in Combat Films and Video Games
Stuart Marshall Bender
Abstract: A clear definition of realism is understandably difficult for critics
and theorists to agree upon when applied to texts such as the war film or
combat shooter, which can have a very direct connection to events that have
actually taken place. This article uses textual observation and analysis to ad-
vance the concept of “reported realism” as an alternate analytical tool to ac-
count for the impression of truth and authenticity produced by specific
stylistic components of these representations of combat violence. Drawing on
cognitivist theories of meaning and the imagination (Torben Grodal, Stephen
Prince) and neoformalist film studies (Kristin Thompson) this article points
toward some of the significant developments in the evolution of violence in
war films as well as the adjacent genre of the first-person shooter video
game. The article shows that the intensified audio-visual detail in contempo-
rary screen representations of war enable film viewers and game players to
construct more vividly imagined mental simulations, thus offering a greater
Keywords: aesthetics, combat film, first person shooters, imagination, realism,
video games, violence
One predominant aspect of the marketing material for Steven Spielberg’s
World War II combat film Saving Private Ryan (1998) was the apparent stamp
of realism given to the film’s battle scenes by veterans of that conflict. For this
reason, it will prove useful to consider the comments on war film realism by two
veterans who are also filmmakers. First, Captain Dale Dye, an ex-Marine and
now a military technical adviser for many contemporary Hollywood produc-
tions, explains an element of combat realism he believes is missing in cinema:
I’ve also got a thing about flies . . . especially the flies that feed on dead
bodies. It’s an image that still haunts me from real-life experience but
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something that’s never seen in films. I suppose it’s hard to train flies but
their presence in swarms around dead bodies leaking fluids is a stun-
ning image that I’ve always thought says a lot about the brutality of
war and the results of human combat. (Dye, email to the author, 31
Of course, there is a combination of what a neoformalist analysis would
call realistic and artistic motivation (Thompson 1981) in the wording Dye uses
to justify this imagery—the flies are a “stunning image” that “says a lot about
the brutality of war.” However, I am interested in an aspect of Dye’s descrip-
tion that becomes clearer when compared with another combat veteran and
filmmaker, Sam Fuller. For Fuller, a veteran of D-Day, realism poses a significant
problem for filmmakers:
See, there’s no way you can portray war realistically, not in a movie nor
in a book. You can only capture a very, very small aspect of it . . . For
moviegoers to get the idea of real combat, you’d have to shoot at them
every so often from either side of the screen. The casualties in the the-
ater would be bad for business . . . Hell, the heavy human toll [of war] is
just too much for anyone to comprehend fully. What I try to do is make
audiences feel the emotional strife of total war. (Fuller 2002: 123)
These filmmakers are not cited here as a Romantic gesture toward their
real-world encounters with war as a stamp of authenticity in expressing the
experience of combat. Rather, the two attitudes embody the problem of real-
ism as it pertains to the combat genre. On the one hand, we have a filmmaker
(Fuller) arguing that it is only possible to “capture” an impression of battle
and, on the other hand, filmmaker (Dye) hinting at the importance of minute
visual details as a stylistic means of conveying that sense of realism. Certainly,
theorists from Andre Bazin (1967) to Roland Barthes (1971) and Jean Bau-
drillard (1981) have also struggled with the concept of cinematic realism. In ad-
dition, in the adjacent field of violent video games it is common for the
apparently increasing realism of their virtual violence to receive criticism, par-
ticularly in the wake of recent school shootings (Ferguson 2013).
In this article, I intend to reframe the discussion of realism onto the stylis-
tic properties of films and video games. I propose the term “reported realism”
as an analytic category that enables the viewer-critic to identify specific tex-
tual cues that prompt claims of realism in regard to a violent film or video
game. Significantly, this argument will show that for such claims it is at times
irrelevant whether or not the particular representation is authentic to real-life
experience. For this reason, an analysis of reported realism offers a useful ap-
proach to understanding the effect and affect of a variety of normative stylis-
tic techniques associated with screen texts that portray violent combat. I
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should note at the outset that there will always be exceptions
to any normative technique. However, the value of this ana-
lytic tool is that it occupies a position somewhere between
stylistic analysis and reception studies, and affords a means by
which the analysis of normative textual style can be informed
by the discursive comments of viewers/spectators.
Historical stories of warfare continue to provide a popular
inspiration for many contemporary screen narratives in film,
television, and video games. Given that contemporary audiences are able to
use these texts to “actively immerse themselves in history” and “construct in-
terpretations of past events” (Fisher 2012: 299), it is important to consider how
these works portray combat violence as well as their presumed relationship
with reality and realism. Indeed, as a secondary school teacher some years ago
I presented the opening battle sequence from Private Ryan to a group of stu-
dents. When asked whether or not the film seemed real—a standard her -
meneutic question typical of English lessons (Bender 2008)—the majority of
students agreed that it did. Upon being prompted to justify their response,
one student cheekily volunteered that he had played the first-person shooter
game Call of Duty. Clearly, such a comment is not meant to be taken seriously;
however, there is a significant network of assumptions about texts, realism,
and viewer perception embedded in the statement. There persists an almost
phenomenological sense for many viewers as to whether or not a text feels re-
alistic. This response to the feeling of combat realism—irrespective of the rep-
resentation’s authenticity—is evident also in academic critical discourse on
war films. Consider, for instance, Phillipa Gates’s description of the apparently
“realistic” style of Olive Stone’s Platoon (1986): “The documentary feel of the
combat sequences—marked by shaky, hand-held camerawork—offer[s] audi-
ences a sense of immediacy, claustrophobia, and realism—but, more impor-
tantly, the subjective point of view of the grunts” (Gates 2005: 300). Here the
critic is applying a feeling, or sensation, of realism to an aspect of the film’s
style, just as Richard Godfrey and Simon Lilley (2009: 278) do in their analysis
of Private Ryan:
Moreover, his [Spielberg’s] use of handheld cameras and 35-millimetre
film gives a documentary effect to the imagery, reminiscent of Frank
Capra’s original footage of that day, and a technique that has become
commonplace in subsequent retellings of World War Two.
Interestingly, in both of those discussions of Platoon and Private Ryan,
these are the only two moments when the authors comment on film style.
The remainder of both analyses focuses on a critique of the films’ ideological
position. These types of statements are common in the literature on war films.
However, the problem is that although they do serve to set an intriguing back-
BLOOD SPLATS AND BODILY COLLAPSE / 3
. . . “reported realism”
enables the viewer-critic to
identify specific textual
cues that prompt claims of
realism in regard to a
violent film or video-game.
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ground for a discussion of the films’ fabula and hermeneutic context, they of-
ten make misleading (or outright false) claims about the style of the works.
Platoon’s battle scenes, for instance, are not filmed in a handheld camera style
at all. Instead, they primarily consist of steady tracking shots through the jun-
gle. And Spielberg’s handheld scenes can hardly be taken to resemble Frank
Capra’s footage since Capra was never actually at Normandy on D-Day.1De-
spite the fact that these authors were in fact writing about aspects of the
films other than their style, it is telling that they seemed to be compelled to
declare something about the apparent realism of the combat scenes based on
a visceral reaction, rather than empirical observation of the film sequences.
In order to understand the reported realism associated with contemporary
World War II combat films, I draw on the neoformalist concept of realistic mo-
tivation. This kind of approach focuses analytic attention onto the way partic-
ular cinematic devices are employed by a film as “an appeal to ideas about
reality” (Thompson 1988: 17). In this view, it is irrelevant whether or not the
film’s narrative or style is a valid “imitation” of reality. According to Kristin
Our ideas about reality are not direct, natural knowledge of the world,
but are culturally determined in various ways. Thus realistic motivation
can appeal to two broad areas of our knowledge: on the one hand, our
knowledge of everyday life gained by direct interaction with nature and
society; on the other, our awareness of prevailing aesthetic canons of re-
alism in a given period of an art form’s stylistic change. (1988: 17)
This is not to take an abstract view of realism. My analysis proposes an
examination of the stylistic techniques used by a particular contemporary
genre, which seems to result in audiences regarding the films as realistic. For
instance, regardless of the commentary by many viewers, the shaky handheld
camerawork of Private Ryan’s Omaha Beach sequence does not correspond
to real human vision or real combat footage. Human vision does not shake,
even during rapid head movements, because our vestibulo-ocular reflex
serves to counteract the movements of the head in order to maintain a stable
image of the world (Leigh 1996). Certainly, damage to the vestibular system
can result in blurry vision. However, firsthand accounts suggest this blurri-
ness is less like an energetic handheld camera and more akin to the kind of
point of view shots films occasionally use to show the perspective of either a
drunk character or one being knocked unconscious, such as when Marlowe
is punched in the face during the first-person sequence of Robert Mont-
gomery’s 1947 film The Lady in the Lake (Crawford 1952). In addition, Toby Hag-
gith (2002) has shown extensively that footage by real-life combat camera
operators does not resemble the handheld look of contemporary combat
films in any meaningful way. Against this background then, it is worth consid-
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BLOOD SPLATS AND BODILY COLLAPSE / 5
ering exactly how violent texts might provoke such claims—or reports—of
realism (Bordwell 1985).
Rougher and More Detailed
A simple observational comparison of a group of combat films will ground the
following discussion of style in a concrete context. The films I have chosen are
a sample of convenience: Back to Bataan (Edward Dmytryck 1945), Objective,
Burma! (Raoul Walsh 1945), A Bridge Too Far (Richard Attenborough 1977), Sav-
ing Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg 1998), and The Thin Red Line (Terrence Mal-
ick 1998). Relevant example clips have been edited into a brief compilation.2
Although the clips in this compilation should not necessarily be regarded as
purely representative of their respective eras of production, their juxtaposi-
tion throws into very sharp relief the key developments in style between the
wartime productions and the contemporary films. It is also significant to note
that, as James Chapman (2008: 63–64) argues, many 1940s combat films were
critically received as realistic in their time. Limited space here provides for only
a summary of the differences, however during the discussion I will refer to
some of the results of the normative analysis (Bordwell 2005) of a greater
range of texts available in my book Film Style and the World War II Combat
Genre (Bender 2013).
The key difference in style between the two eras of production is that there
is an increasingly roughened and more detailed aesthetic predominant in the
contemporary films and, as I show later, this is the key reason why viewers
commonly report the contemporary productions as more re-
alistic. Consider for instance the significantly increased use of
handheld cinematography in the contemporary productions.
Compared with the tripod-mounted camera of Objective,
Burma! or Back to Bataan, Spielberg and Malick’s cameras are
frequently moving, panning or tracking with a coarse bounci-
ness through the battlefield. There is also a progressively
heavier layering of sounds within the audio mix, which is ap-
parent in how simplistic and repetitive the mono soundtrack
of the 1940s films (timecode: 00:40–00:50) seems in contrast with the over-
lapping machine guns, bullet impacts, and atmospheric yelling of the soldiers
in A Bridge Too Far and Thin Red Line (timecode: 01:35–02:16).One respect in
which the aesthetic of the contemporary films is distinctly roughened is in the
actors’ performances. The verbal and nonverbal acting styles of Errol Flynn,
John Wayne, and the other 1940s performers are remarkably rigid in compari-
son with the loose movements of the later actors.3Perhaps most noticeable is
that the “clutch-and-fall” death performances identified by Stephen Prince
(2003) in the 1940s films become increasingly physicalized by the time of Sav-
ing Private Ryan in 1998 (timecode: 00:40–00:42 and 00:26–00:36).
The key difference in style
between the two eras of
production is that there is
an increasingly roughened
and more detailed aesthetic
predominant in the
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Before addressing how this contemporary aesthetic provokes a sense of re-
alism I will briefly account for some of the key reason(s) these changes in style
have occurred in the intervening half century between the two eras of produc-
tion. Censorship may seem to be an obvious explanation for some of the ma-
jor differences observed in the depictions of violence, but the influence of
such regulation should not be overstated. For instance, Prince has argued that
for war films made during World War II in the Untied States, the Production
Code Administration was more “flexible” on battlefield violence “because it
provided for greater realism and authenticity,” but would be less flexible in a
gangster film where the same kind of violence “would be seen as exploitative
and in bad taste” (2003: 163–164). Quite specifically, the 1943 film Bataan (Tay
Garnett) occasionally uses squib hits on actors to produce a small puff of gray
smoke to show the impact of a bullet (figure 1). The increased saturation of de-
tail we observe in the depictions of violence can also be linked to both conven-
tion and defamiliarization (Bender and Broderick 2014; Thompson 1988); what
is considered realistic in one era is unlikely to achieve realistic impact in an-
other (Prince 2009).
Arguably, the loose performance style of the contemporary actors is at
least partially the result of the influence of the Method school of acting—de-
rived from Konstantin Stanislavski’s theatrical rehearsal techniques for actors
(Bender 2012). This tradition has ties to the privileged status of naturalism and
spontaneity (however they may be defined) within much broader discourses
of contemporary filmmaking and film reception. Related to these apparent
Figure 1. A puff of
gray smoke blasts
from a small squib
hit explosive in this
actor’s death in
reaction is a slow
variation of the era’s
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markers of performance authenticity is the premium placed on the actor’s ex-
perience and, in fact, one of the key aspects of performance in today’s combat
films is a particular form of actor rehearsal, which emphasizes an immersion
in the military experience. This immersion often takes place in improvised
“boot camps” run by civilian military technical advisers such as Dale Dye (Suid
2002). But these cultural influences only partially account for the observed
roughness in the screen performances. Also relevant is the invention of more
mobile sound recording devices. Whereas Errol Flynn would have to stop in a
very specific position for his voice to be recorded by the 140 pound overhead
microphone (timecode: 01:13–01:20), Tom Hanks and other contemporary ac-
tors are likely to be “close-miked” with a radio microphone or overdubbed in
postproduction and so their movements are much less constrained when act-
ing out the scenes of combat (“Technical News” 1944: 69).
These aesthetic properties of combat texts should be taken into consider-
ation in order to understand the ways in which these films achieve their im-
pact on the audience. After all, as Tamborini and colleagues (2013: 100–101)
argue, screen violence “is not inherently enjoyable,” and even though “audi-
ences cringe” at scenes of brutality the fact remains that many violent films
and video games achieve high levels of popularity.
The Imagination, Mental Simulation, and Detailed Aesthetics
The tendency toward an increasing quantity of detail is bound up with the ac-
tivities of perception and cognition by which viewers comprehend the narra-
tive events depicted in the films. Perception and cognition are central to
Bord well’s (1985: 30–47) account of comprehension in Narration and the Fic-
tion Film as well as Thompson’s neoformalism (1981, 1988). According to Bord-
well, a Constructivist theory of how viewers make sense of films would argue
that: “The artwork is necessarily incomplete, needing to be unified and
fleshed out by the active participation of the perceiver” (1985: 33). This active
participation involves an ongoing process of inference making, and further
work in cognitivist film studies has developed these arguments. For instance,
in Narrative Comprehension and Film, Edward Branigan argues that the spec-
tator’s comprehension of a film occurs through a process of “moment by mo-
ment regulation of conflicts among competing spatial, temporal, and causal
hypotheses” (1992: 39).
Other researchers have enlisted the concept of the imagination as a way to
explain viewer engagement with the narrative of the film. This is not to sug-
gest that the spectator imagines the events on screen are really happening,
nor is it a prescriptive account of how certain films become more engaging
than others. Rather the theory explains how viewers use the on-screen infor-
mation to imagine a unified, complete fabula: “My imagining is not that I [ac-
tually] see the characters and the events of the movie; it is simply that [I
BLOOD SPLATS AND BODILY COLLAPSE / 7
of viewers . . .
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imagine] there are these characters and that these events occur—the same
sort of impersonal imagining I engage in when I read a novel” (Currie 1995:
169). However, the theory could easily be confused as suggesting that the
spectator imagines the diegetic events happening within their presence. To
counter such misconceptions, Noël Carroll makes the following clarification:
“Instead of seeing imaginarily, I literally see representations of actors on
screen, which I use to imagine the fiction” (2009: 200). Currie (1995: 146–150)
would argue that in order to fulfill this process of imagining the fiction, spec-
tators run an offline mental simulation of the narrative events.
These concepts have also been used by cognitivist theorists primarily to
understand (and debate) how viewer identification and empathy functions
(see Coplan 2009; Frome 2009). The argument presented by Torben Grodal
(1997, 2009), for instance, parallels Currie’s in some respects, but diverges in
others. His position—which derives also from evolutionary psychology and
neuroscience—suggests that films are themselves simulations and offers a
theory of how the spectator’s mind tags the input from the films according to
a particular “reality status” (Grodal 2009: 101). For Grodal,
The fundamental architecture of the brain was made at a time when
incoming data were essentially true, so that reality status evaluation
was a secondary process and the later cultural development of visual
(and acoustic) simulations [such as cave paintings and stories] made it
necessary to contain the impact of such simulations by higher order
cognitive processes. (2009: 185)
For Henry Bacon (2009: 79–80), the imagination “has tremendous evolu-
tionary advantage” in that it enables humans to mentally rehearse for poten-
tial future situations as well as predict behaviors of animals during hunting,
for example. From the cognitivist perspective, many of these capacities that
have evolved for various purposes also happen to enable humans to compre-
hend cinematic texts (Grodal 1997). The argument below extends the work of
these theorists via a much more narrowly focused account of some specific
activities of filmmakers and video game developers and the resulting effects
of reported realism.
I believe the increased level of detail that is evident in the contemporary
combat films allows viewers to run an off-line mental simulation of the die-
gesis with a high degree of vividness. As a result of this richly detailed and nu-
anced imagining, the impression of the film’s realism is greatly increased. For
instance, the extremely dense soundtrack of Ryan’s Omaha Beach scene con-
tributes to the great sense of immersion reported by many viewers because
they are able to imagine bullets hitting the sand and slicing through the wa-
ter. This is not to say that viewers imagine being there in the battle, but that
they have an “impersonal imagining” (Currie 1995) of the fiction as something
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that is happening. Arguably, this response occurs primarily because there is a
substantial amount of sonic information for the spectator’s imagination to use
to simulate the diegesis. Consider also some of the minor physical movements
in the performance of the German soldiers in this sequence, in contrast with
the simplistic and far less detailed movements of the enemies in the 1940s
films. For example, as Pvt. Jackson runs to the flank of a machine gun nest, a
cut to a Long Shot presents three Germans in the machine gun nest just as
one of them taps the middle gunner on the top of his helmet. The middle gun-
ner then shifts his aim and continues firing in the direction of Jackson’s move-
ment. The spectator’s imagination is able to perform two activities here. First,
an attentive viewer might fill in the gap of what is not stated verbally—that
is, that the middle gunner recognized the tap by his comrade as an indication
of enemy movement. Second, the German’s action adds further detail to the
simulation being run by the spectator’s imagination, along with many other
highly detailed aspects of the scene such as the sand caked on Miller’s helmet,
the background voices of other soldiers on the beach, and so on.
Recalling the neoformalist concept of realistic motivation, the details pre-
sented need not necessarily correspond to actuality. Rather, the details simply
need to appeal to the audience’s expectations of reality. These expectations,
of course, are dependent on the viewer’s world experience as well as experi-
ence with other texts. Although I am not primarily concerned with narrative
here, the principle would apply to comprehension of the narrative events. For
instance, director Peter Berg claims in the commentary track of his film The
Kingdom (2007) that it received criticism from everyday viewers who regarded
it as unrealistic that the terrorists’ bullets never hit any of the main characters
in a crucial firefight scene. However, Berg claims that when he screened the
film for Navy SEALs they suggested that this matches their experience with
these sorts of terrorists who have the tactical strategy of shooting blindly
(Berg 2009). The everyday viewers then, have expectations that may not
match up to the reality of the events depicted.
In terms of gunshot violence, the norms of on-screen combat deaths have
clearly changed from the clutch-and-fall style of the 1940s, through the spas-
modic reactions of the 1970s, to the sudden jerking motions of the 2000s.
Each successive iteration of these conventions introduces greater detail into
the depiction of death. The visual display of the bullet impact and the accom-
panying flesh hits and grunt reactions on the soundtrack are constitutive of
such increased details. A related aesthetic development is the trend, starting
with Sam Fuller’s Verboten (1959), for high numbers of corpses to remain as
part of the mise-en-scène. It is likely that the apparent, or reported, realism of
the contemporary deaths is largely an effect of the viewer’s ability to imagine
(and mentally simulate) the death due to the quantity of details offered by the
representation. Indeed, Sam Peckinpah’s infamous bullet hits—produced by
BLOOD SPLATS AND BODILY COLLAPSE / 9
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squib hits blasting chunks of raw meat as well as the fake blood fluid—seem
all the more grotesque and realistic precisely because of the detail in their
presentation (Cook 1999: 144–145). Compare this with Dale Dye’s views regard-
ing on-screen combat killings:
I’d love for filmmakers to re-think the special effects gore and splatter
that they all seem to think result from gunshots or shrapnel hits on the
human body. It’s really a relatively mundane event [in real life]; the
killed or wounded man usually just crumples and drops like a puppet
with strings cut rather than jerking and dancing with the impact of
rounds or shrapnel. It’s generally only then that the bleeding starts. De-
spite that fact, filmmakers have been taught—or decided for the visual
impact—to fill the scene with exploding squibs and blood bags. (Dye,
email to the author, 31 August, 2011)
Dye’s perspective is significant in terms of understanding the cognitive
perception of realistic screen deaths. His description of a victim’s body, which
“drops like a puppet with strings cut,” matches the visual appearance of the
victim in Robert Capa’s famous photograph from the Spanish Civil War titled
“Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death” (1936).4But the killings in World
War II combat films I have examined do not significantly resemble Capa’s im-
age or Dye’s description. Victims in contemporary films, even in genres other
than World War II combat films, die in extremely detailed depictions. For in-
stance, bullet hits to the body are presented via huge puffs of blood and dust,
which explode from their chests in Ryan, and spasmodic bodily convulsions in
The Thin Red Line. In Walter Hill’s action film Last Man Standing (1996), Bruce
Willis’s Colt .45 pistol shots blast victims straight through the windows of a
whorehouse. Examples such as these develop and extend the style of substi-
tutional emblematics identified by Prince (2003) in the 1940s films. Rather
than using scenery damage or puffs of gunsmoke as stand-ins for the damage
to the human body that is not displayed—as in the substitutional emblemat-
ics of the 1940s films—these contemporary killings show the damage to the
body as well as the scenery in a display of details. An extreme example is the
detailed computer-generated imagery of David O. Russell’s Gulf War film
Three Kings (1999) in which a single bullet is shown entering a human body
and, via photorealistic animation, lodging in an internal organ where bile and
bacteria begin to spread.
Although I do not think that filmmakers are practicing cognitive theorists,
in some respects they do seem to show an awareness of the value of increas-
ing the details on screen as a way to strengthen the credibility of the film. It is
possible to read the pseudo-boot camp training of actors as deliberately in-
tended to amplify the details in the actors’ performance in all areas of soldier-
ing. This is evident in simple aspects of performance style such as the
10 / PROJECTIONS
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contemporary actors speaking much more, and with much more vocal range
than in the 1940s films. But it is also evident in more subtle movements such
as background actors conducting more detailed business such as reloading
weapons, communicating via field radios, and looking around for the enemy
with much more focus and attention than in the earlier films (figure 2). This in
turn suggests an implicit understanding of the audience’s ability to mentally
simulate narrative events via presence of elaborate details.
A counterargument to this theory of simulation and imagination may be
that it is perhaps more effective for filmmakers to leave gaps for viewers to
imagine, or that some directors intend the viewer to be left with a sense of
ambiguity. Such a claim would misunderstand my position here because I am
not adopting a prescriptive attitude toward filmmaking practices. Rather, I am
offering a descriptive account of what the contemporary films actually look
and sound like in contrast to the 1940s combat films, and speculating on a
very specific effect that seems to be achieved by the contemporary aesthetic.
From this perspective, it is irrelevant whether or not the films would be more
effective if viewers were expected to imagine their own details. Another
caveat to make is that in discussing the effect of details I am not necessarily
referring to image quality or clarity. Although the shaky, bouncing camera-
BLOOD SPLATS AND BODILY COLLAPSE / 11
Figure 2. As Errol
Flynn gives orders to
his men in Objective,
stay still in rigid
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work of a contemporary combat scene may have less visual clarity than the
stable, tripod-mounted framings of Objective, Burma! or Back to Bataan, I pro-
pose that the greater “visual activity” (Cutting et al. 2012) associated with this
kind of hyperkinetic filming provides greater visual information. For instance,
Malick’s rapidly panning camera in one bunker attack sequence of The Thin
Red Line enables very brief glimpses of different parts of the action, which en-
able the viewer to imagine a richly detailed diegesis (timecode: 02:00–02:14).
A Parallel Case: Combat Video Games
The adjacent medium of first person shooter (FPS) video games exhibits a re-
markably similar transition toward increased visual and auditory detail within
a much shorter time frame. During the 19 years of video game design be-
tween 1992’s Wolfenstein 3d (Id Software) and 2011’s Battlefield 3 (DICE Soft-
ware) there is a clear progression toward increasingly detailed visual and
auditory depictions of the virtual world (figures 3 and 4). Discursively, there is
also a tendency for the successive developments to be regarded as becoming
increasingly realistic. Consider this prerelease review of Battlefield 3, in which
the writer anecdotally recounts showing some demo gameplay footage to
[They] thought they were watching some sort of First Person-style
movie that had been shot about the wars in Afghanistan/Iraq … Just be-
fore the end, I broke the news to them that what they were watching
was in fact, actual gameplay from the new Battlefield 3 game due out
12 / PROJECTIONS
Figure 3. Simplified
interface in the first
s2_PROJ-080202_Layout 1 9/29/14 4:12 PM Page 12
this Fall …and they were basically awestruck by the reality of it all.
While this comment is certainly revealing in regard to the use of contem-
porary war films as a means of grounding the game’s “look” in familiar terms,
the reported realism is quite clear. The changing appearance and sound de-
sign of combat games over the past two decades has implications for under-
standing player immersion and engagement. Many examples of gameplay
screen recordings can be found online, however I have assembled an edited
video clip of relevant gameplay to illustrate a number of the following aes-
In terms of graphic presentation, while the Battlefield 3 screen-shot is
clearly not identical to a photographic image from a film, its level of photore-
alism is much higher than the Wolfenstein 3d screen image. For instance, the
objects in the Wolfenstein 3d screenshot are clearly pixelated, suggesting a
computer-generated image as opposed to the more smooth high resolution
graphics of Battlefield 3. There are other contributing factors that classify Bat-
tlefield 3 as possessing what Prince would describe as “perceptual realism,”
which is “the replication via digital means of contextual cues designating a
three-dimensional world” (2012: 32). For example, the lighting effects exhibit
shading qualities, casting shadows to indicate an off-screen lamp post and
building. By contrast, the Wolfenstein 3d shadows are simplistic and inconsis-
tent. The soundtrack is also much more densely layered in a contemporary
FPS: the player experiences a greater range as well as quantity of off-screen
BLOOD SPLATS AND BODILY COLLAPSE / 13
combat graphics and
perceptual realism in
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yells and higher quality gunshot samples, to name two obvi-
ous aspects (compare timecode 00:00–00:13 with 00:17–
00:23). For some people engaging in online multiplayer sce-
narios, there is also the added detail of players’ verbal com-
munication through their headset microphones. Of course,
increases in computer technology have allowed game devel-
opers to produce these audio-visual representations. Al-
though the technology has certainly been a factor, I am
interested here in articulating the specific effects of these
technological advancements, as well as identifying the ways in which these
effects enable a greater level of reported realism for the contemporary FPS
games. It should be remembered that the details themselves do not necessar-
ily need to be realistic to provoke reports of realism from the audience. As The
Onion ironically suggests in its parody on the FPS genre, the following is un-
likely to be considered enjoyable by commercial consumers:
Ultra-Realistic Modern Warfare Game Features Awaiting Orders, Repair-
ing Trucks: Designers say the new game explores the endless paperwork,
routine patrolling a modern day soldier endures in photorealistic detail.
(“Ultra-Realistic Modern Warfare” n.d.)
A useful starting point then, is Clive Fencott’s observation in the 1990s that
the phenomenon people regard as “presence [or] the feeling of being there”
when experiencing virtual reality environments (VREs) results partially from
particular details of the environment which he labels “sureties” (Fencott n.d.).
Such sureties are things that persons interacting with the VRE would find pre-
dictable based on their experience of the real world. Interestingly, for the par-
ticipants in Fencott’s study, the details did not need to correspond
photographically to the real world in order to create the sensation of pres-
ence. Fencott describes presence as a “mental state . . . the mental construc-
tions that people build from stimuli are more important than the stimuli
themselves.” Joseph Anderson and Barbara Fisher Anderson (2007: 11) argue:
A virtual world can apparently be realistic or not; it doesn’t seem to
matter. What matters is that a configuration of technology presents in-
formation simultaneously in multiple sense modes with the potential
for participant interaction, as when the participant turns his head or
walks or reaches, and the information changes appropriately.
Fencott’s focus on the mental construction created by the person interact-
ing with the VRE is clearly connected with the cognitivist notion of running an
offline mental simulation. Indeed, Grodal suggests from a cognitivist view
that even “visually crude video games such as Pac-Man (Namco/Midway 1980)
might provide strong immersion because of their activation of basic visuo-
14 / PROJECTIONS
The adjacent medium of first
person shooter (FPS) video
games exhibits a remarkably
similar transition toward
increased visual and
auditory detail within a
much shorter time frame.
s2_PROJ-080202_Layout 1 9/29/14 4:12 PM Page 14
motor links” (2003: 132). The sensation of presence seems to be possible by
way of even simplistic details, which only need to approximate real-world
cues, but also because the interactive nature of a game enables the human
capacity of “play,” which Grodal (2003: 140) suggests has an evolutionary ba-
sis. Such studies prompt the question: Why do increased photorealistic de-
tails, higher resolution graphics, and so on, generally lead to a greater level of
Detailed Depictions and Enhanced Presence
Reported realism in a video game is at least partially a result of an enhanced
sense of presence—as game details become more nuanced and offer greater
information, the player’s imagination is able to run an increasingly vivid men-
tal simulation of the game world. Peter Bell, in a comparison of Doom (Id Soft-
ware 1993) and Quake II (Id Software, 1997), briefly indicates some aspects of
Quake II’s style, which make it seem more realistic than the earlier FPS:
It is only through a comparative difference that one is more “realistic.”
For example, in Quake II, enemies jump out of the way of gunfire,
whereas, in DOOM, enemies are more or less armed, stationary targets.
Quake II also uses a more advanced graphics engine than DOOM does.
While DOOM superimposes two-dimensional characters (called
“sprites”) against a background, Quake II’s graphic engine depicts figures
in three dimensions through the use of polygon modelling. (2003: 14)
Consider the artificial intelligence of the Quake II enemies when they are
aware of gunfire. This is akin to the effect of the difference between Objective,
Burma!’s enemy who fumble and move awkwardly and the German gunner in
Ryan who taps a comrade on the helmet. Of course, greater photorealism in a
game’s graphics has a clear impact on the viewer’s ability to imagine the
world of the game, but there are more subtle details to be taken into account.
For instance, when a computer-controlled character moves out of the way of
incoming fire, or is shot and collapses to the ground in early FPS games, the ac-
tual animation of the character’s movement is simplistic and minimal. This is
also strongly evident in the Medal of Honor (Electronic Arts 1999) clip in the
edited video I referred to earlier (00:34–00:36). By contrast, in the more recent
games character movements—particularly the bodily performance of
death—is much more richly detailed (00:04–00:08). Call of Duty: Modern
Warfare 3 (Infinity Ward 2011) features wounded characters sometimes
writhing on the ground after being shot. In Battlefield 3, when an explosion
occurs in close proximity to a character, he may stagger and flex an arm out-
ward to brace his body for a fall to the ground, which is in stark contrast with
the cartoonish “flip” in reaction to an explosion in Medal of Honor (timecode:
00:21–00:23). Getting to their feet again, a character is animated to the extent
BLOOD SPLATS AND BODILY COLLAPSE / 15
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of putting one arm to the ground and pushing upward. When this character
takes cover behind an object, his body transitions from upright position through
a number of animated stages (figure 5). Sometimes there is more than one
version of the animation for such moves, increasing the apparent randomness
(or spontaneity) of the characters’ actions. The promotional material for Bat-
tlefield 3 credits this level of animation to particular plugin called “ANT” (Ani-
mation Toolset) used by their game-engine to run the game:
The ANT technology also enables DICE to ditch the ugly gliding soldier
animations that plague every multiplayer game on the market. Soldiers
. . . now move with a degree of realism, turning their heads and guns be-
fore their bodies, transitioning aggressively into and out of cover. (“Bat-
tlefield 3 Game Informer” n.d.)
Linked with these preanimated movements, contemporary games also
make use of “ragdoll physics” to produce dynamic interactions between char-
acters and their environment (Ghodsi and Wilson n.d.; Watkinson 2009). This
technology enables game designers to set up a virtual bone system with spe-
cific constraints within a character’s body, which are driven by algorithms that
move the bones in response to collisions with the environment. For instance,
a character hit by a bullet in the shoulder may spin one way to the ground,
whereas if hit in the head, knee, or shoulder he will react differently. These
physics animations do not necessarily emulate (or have to emulate) real-
world physics. As Thomas Jakobsen argues in his description of a physics en-
gine he created for the game Hitman: Codename 47 (IO Interactive 2000):
The important goals are believability (the programmer can cheat as
much as he wants if the player still feels immersed) and speed of execu-
tion (only a certain time per frame will be allocated to the physics en-
gine). In the case of physics simulation, the word believability also covers
stability; a method is no good if objects seem to drift through obstacles
16 / PROJECTIONS
in FPS involve a
greater range of
s2_PROJ-080202_Layout 1 9/29/14 4:12 PM Page 16
or vibrate when they should be lying still, or if cloth parti-
cles tend to “blow up.” (Jakobsen n.d.)
These goals indicate why early ragdoll physics—including
those of Hitman: Codename 47’s—seem primitive by compar-
ison to the recent character reactions in Battlefield 3 or Call of
Duty: Modern Warfare 3. As computer processing power and
dedicated graphics card technology improves, game engines
are able to run physics models that encompass greater numbers of con-
straints, greater rendering requirements, and therefore produce more detailed
character movements. To augment the work of the animation teams, video
game developers also incorporate motion capture (mocap) technology to dig-
itally record the bodily performance of actors. Often the vocal performance is
also captured and these recordings are used to drive cinematic narrative
scenes in the games. Indeed, in the case of Call of Duty: Ghosts (Infinity War
2013), an ex-Navy SEAL combat dog undertook a mocap session to provide
movement data for the canine character “Riley.” The significance of mocap for
game realism is that, as Prince argues in relation to motion capture technol-
ogy used for digital characters in films, the actor “remains a part of the digital
character even though the actor is not truly on camera throughout the scene”
(2012: 116). Therefore, the technology enables digital characters to be “embod-
ied” with the minor details and spontaneous gestures of a real performance.
There are other details afforded by the increase in technology, such as the
resolution in “texture maps.” These are images of surface textures, such as
concrete, grass, and wood which are “mapped” (digitally applied) onto a com-
puter-generated object. Often texture maps are photographs of real-world
textures and therefore the earliest uses of them were restricted by how much
resolution could be produced on screen in real time. More recent develop-
ments also include “bump maps”—additional textures that produce the im-
pression of bumps, scratches, and other three dimensional properties on a
texture—that are revealed according to the virtual lighting.
In an area associated with video games, virtual heritage visualization,
some researchers have noted that participants in virtual reality environments
often rate “interactivity, tasks, and some idea of other people” as more impor-
tant than the photorealism of the graphics (Champion 2004: 49). It is there-
fore important to distinguish the saturation of details I am describing from
the simplistic notion of photorealism. Particularly significant for realism is the
impact of some relatively nonobvious details of visual texture such as the
density of terrain decoration and changing weather conditions. For instance,
Johan Andersson (2011a) of DICE Software has explained the value streaming
the textures in Battlefield 3’s during gameplay rather than pre-loading them
into memory beforehand. This streaming technique offers the game makers
BLOOD SPLATS AND BODILY COLLAPSE / 17
technology enables digital
characters to be “embodied”
with the minor details and
spontaneous gestures of a
s2_PROJ-080202_Layout 1 9/29/14 4:12 PM Page 17
the opportunity to assign a large range of unique textures to different parts
of the game environment instead of relying on a few repeating textures. In
addition, the game developers take into account how the environmental de-
tails affect player interaction. For example, the terrain decoration—which con-
trols the quantity of elements such as vegetation on the ground—can be
adjusted to different levels depending on the user’s graphics processor (fig-
ure 6). However, it is not possible to turn it off entirely as “it would be too
easy to see everyone hiding in the grass” (Andersson 2011a) and therefore this
would have a detrimental impact on the feeling of immersive realism during
the multiplayer experience. These texturing capabilities seem to have been
expanded in the recent upgrade to the engine (called Frostbite 3) for the 2014
release of Battlefield 4 (DICE), which features changing weather conditions.
For instance, during a multiplayer match titled “Paracel Storm” that takes
place in an archipelago near China, the bright sunny daylight can change to
a dark gray-skied rain storm. While the wind blows the trees and ground
vegetation around wildly, the rain also obscures the player’s vision. All of this
creates a convincing sense of the “smoke and dust” Peter Maslowski (1993:
73) describes in a real combat zone, which prevents a clear view of what is
happening. These examples suggest that developers seem to have discov-
ered techniques for producing a greater level of reported realism and these
techniques are predicated on increasing the details presented by the virtual
18 / PROJECTIONS
the detail options for
such as grass and
other vegetation in
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A clear definition of realism is understandably difficult for critics and theorists
to agree on when applied to texts such as the war film or combat shooter,
which can have a very direct connection to events that have actually taken
place. The problem becomes more confusing when the differences between
narrative and style are taken into account. After all, no real-world version of
Private Ryan’s closing battle at Ramelle took place during World War II be-
cause the town is fictional. However, the physical movements of the perform-
ers in that film can be regarded as more true-to-life than the stylized
movements of the actors in Wake Island (John Farrow 1942), Bataan, or Objec-
tive, Burma! I believe it is the quantity, indeed the saturation, of audio-visual
details in contemporary screen representations of combat that elicits a sensa-
tion of realism by enabling audiences to imagine the fictional events via in-
creasingly vivid mental simulations. For example, World War II video game
Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway (Ubisoft 2008) has quite detailed gore, show-
ing bodily dismemberment from explosions and slow motion head shots of
bloodied explosions of cranial matter. However, even though the quality of
these violent animations is not as photorealistic as the recent Battlefield or
Call of Duty games, the detail of the violent depictions prompted controversial
claims of realism from audiences at the time (Klepek 2008).
One of the striking ironies associated with some nonrealistic camera tech-
niques used in combat scenes is that these have generally been employed as
a means of enhancing the impression of “combat reality.” For instance, John
Huston’s practice of hitting the camera with his hand to simulate or augment
a nearby explosion in the staged battles of Battle at San Pietro (1945) seemed
more like battle footage to military commanders than the more stabilized
footage shot by the AFPU or Signal Corps cameramen in actual battle condi-
tions (Haggith 2002: 336; Ed Montagne, cited in Schickel 2000). Contemporary
audiences, too, seem to regard the style of modern films as closer depictions
to what a battlefield is “like.”
Indeed, the discourse of public reviewers’ commentary on Ryan carries a
distinctly Bazanian flavor. After all, the common response summarized by
Basinger (2003: 253) as “Hollywood finally tells the truth” is clearly informed
by teleological assumptions that filmmaking practice has developed toward a
realistic representation of infantry combat violence.
The theoretical construct of reported realism I have advanced here offers a
further means of locating the textual devices that create an effect of credibil-
ity that is regarded by audiences as realistic. It is also a useful analytical tool
to understand the affective properties of representations that are regarded as
realistic even if some audiences have no way of knowing this to be the case.
For instance, when blood smears appear on the camera lens in a contempo-
rary combat film it may be regarded as a realistic touch by many audiences
BLOOD SPLATS AND BODILY COLLAPSE / 19
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even though it is likely that such footage would not be used in an edited
newsreel shot by a real combat cinematographer (Haggith 2002). In the same
way, it does not matter that the actual look of handheld filming in contempo-
rary combat films does not resemble documentary or newsreel footage, be-
cause the cultural idea of what documentaries and newsreels “look like” is
that they have wobbly handheld camerawork (Bender 2013). Indeed, Thomp-
son anticipates these concepts when she summarizes the way realistic moti-
vation in a film affects the film’s reception:
Motivations are sets of cues within the work [film, novel, etc.] that allow
us to understand the justification for the presence of any given device. If
the cues ask us to appeal to our knowledge of the real world (however
mediated that knowledge may be by cultural learning), we can say that
the work is using realistic motivation. And if realistic motivation becomes
one of the main ways of justifying the work’s overall structures, then we
generalize and perceive the work as a whole as realistic. (1988: 198)
Reported realism, then, adopts the neoformalist notion of realistic motiva-
tion and connects it to the cognitivist case for imagination and simulation. As
I indicated in the introduction to this article, we should not expect every text
to fit the model and therefore it is worth considering potential counterexam-
ples. For instance, some readers may wonder how contemporary action com-
bat films such as The Expendables 2 (Simon West 2012) or Rambo (Sylvester
Stallone 2008), can be accommodated by such a theory. The stylistic presenta-
tion of violence in these two movies certainly exhibits the same characteris-
tics of saturated detail, however it would be difficult to find a viewer claiming
these films are realistic. I believe this speaks to the prob-
lem of style and narrative. Stylistically, the densely lay-
ered soundtrack of gunshots, yelling, and bullet impacts
during the Expendables’ attack on a compound in the
opening scene of The Expendables 2 are accompanied by
detailed blood splats and forceful bodily convulsions by
stunt performers. However, at the level of narrative, this
sequence also features blatantly unbelievable events. For instance, the lead at-
tack car spinning around 180 degrees to use its more armored rear end, which
perfectly aligns with the defense barriers set up by the enemy, who seem to
offer no meaningful resistance to the onslaught of the protagonists (figure 7).
Moreover, the comedic performances throughout the film are clearly transtex-
tual caricatures of the 1980s action film characters played by The Expendables
2 stars such as Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Although the concept of reported realism points the way to a much more
thorough examination of the techniques by which such texts may cue a sense
of realism for spectators, problematic texts suggest that the analyst must
20 / PROJECTIONS
Reported realism, then, adopts the
neoformalist notion of realistic
motivation and connects it to the
cognitivist case for imagination
s2_PROJ-080202_Layout 1 9/29/14 4:12 PM Page 20
take into account the importance of genre and narrative. However, these prob-
lems certainly indicate potential areas of future research, for instance a con-
sideration of the ways in which the audience’s prior knowledge affects their
ability to imagine the fiction (Bacon 2011). Arguably, an audience member who
knows something about Omaha Beach (or the Guadalcanal) is likely to come
to a combat film with a greater amount of detail for their imagination to use
in the mental simulation. Future research should consider the application of
reported realism to violence from noncombat texts. For instance, the head-
crushing scenes in both Irreversible (Gaspar Noé 2002) and Drive (Nicolas
Winding Refn 2011) which have certainly generated claims of realism (Pe-
rushek 2011; Schembri 2004) despite the supervising sound editor of Drive
claiming there is no real similarity between the sound of a movie fight and
that of a real fight (Engber 2012). Therefore, while reported realism should not
be taken as a totalizing theory of textual style, it certainly offers a useful
methodology for the analysis of film and video game style, which draws at-
tention to the significance of aesthetic characteristics associated with greater
Stuart Marshall Bender, PhD, is a filmmaker and screen researcher based in
Perth, Western Australia. He currently teaches in the Department of Film, Tel-
evision and Screen Arts at Curtin University. His films have been shown inter-
nationally and have been nominated for a number of awards, including “Best
Use of Visual Effects” at the WA Screen Awards (The Argentinian Escape, 2013
and Homecoming 2014) and “Best in Show” at the 2011 Action On Film Festival
in California (Double Cross). His research work is concerned with digital repre-
sentations of violence and war (Film Style and the World War II Combat Film
[Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013]).
BLOOD SPLATS AND BODILY COLLAPSE / 21
Figure 7: Coming
of The Expendables
2fails to prompt
claims of realism due
to its conventional
s2_PROJ-080202_Layout 1 9/29/14 4:12 PM Page 21
22 / PROJECTIONS
1It is possible that Godfrey and Lilley are thinking of Robert Capa, who was a photojour-
nalist that did land (briefly) at Omaha Beach with E-Company. His blurry, “slightly out of fo-
cus” still photographs have become iconic of the battle. See his memoir for more on his
combat photography experience (Capa 1947).
3“Rigid” is a descriptive term and should not be taken to mean “wooden” in a pejorative
sense here. I provide more detail, and more comparison clips, in my online article in Interac-
tive Media Journal (Bender 2012).
4Interestingly for the current argument, there is in fact some controversy regarding the
authenticity of Capa’s photograph, some researchers suggesting the death is faked. How-
ever, there is also compelling evidence to suggest that the image, and the death, is real. For
researcher Richard Whelan (2002: 53–54), most compelling is the analysis by Capt. Robert
Franks, a homicide detective, who comments on details of the subject’s hand position and
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