We’ve all got our pet peeves when it comes to what we see on film: bad clichés; certain types of plotholes; particularly ludicrous Deus Ex Machinas. Sometimes it can spell the difference between our choice to rant or rave about the latest blockbuster, but even so, many of those peeves are just never going anywhere. There’s no point in bringing them up because most people don’t even notice. And I’m not talking about the “sound in space” problems or never-ending ammo. Just weird niggling details that remind you all too easily that what you’re watching isn’t remotely real.
So these are some of the biggest offenders—to me, personally. Maybe you share my pain. Or maybe I’ll just sound like that crazy person at your house parties who won’t shut up about anachronisms and fake blood. I am sure you have to deal with those people all the time.
The Sword-From-Scabbard Noise
I blame this one on an excellent art history professor of mine who taught us a lot about ancient weaponry. See, scabbards are often lined with fabric or wood. The reason why is this: if your sword is made of metal, and the inside of your scabbard is made of metal, your sword will get mighty rusty. It’s just science. So you line your scabbard to protect the blade.
But every time anyone unsheathes a sword in a film or television show, there’s this sound. You know the sound. That metal-on-metal schwing! one that tickles the ear and lets you know a fight is about to start. That sound a sword should never, ever make being pulled from a scabbard. It gets worse—on occasion, the sword makes that sound when it’s pulled from a leather belt. Like there’s a magical invisible scabbard you can’t see hanging from it, maybe, or a special plate fixed to the interior of the belt for the specific purpose of making that noise and letting every bad guy for five kilometers around know you want to start something.
Related: When people touch sword blades. DO NOT TOUCH SWORD BLADES. No, bad oils on your hands. No. Bad knight/freedom fighter/highlander.
Old Red Blood
Blood is a very dramatic thing that can be used to great effect visually. It’s frightening in part because it’s so vivid. We have a visceral reaction to the color red either sensually or violently most of the time, especially to the scarlet hue of blood. So it’s hardly surprising that it’s all over the things we watch—splattered on walls, dripping from wounds, getting sucked up by vampires.
But here’s the problem: Blood dries. And when it dries it turns a very unappealing shade of brown. I can understand why set crews would prefer not to use that color, in part because it’s unflattering and in part because the cue is not so easily recognized after years and years of bright red blood on screen. But when people find notes written in blood or hit a day-old crime scene covered with it or find bloody stains on clothes and they are still red as fresh donor pints, it irks. Especially since dried brown blood has an eeriness to it that is never exploited on film. So someone needs to fix this.
Singing Requires No Breath
Okay, this is weirdly specific, and maybe it just bugs me in particular. In movies or television where people sing (in musicals or otherwise), the singing isn’t usually live during filming. Rather, a track is played and everyone lip-synchs to that because it’s easier and doesn’t require any fancy recording equipment. When an actor knows what they’re doing, they will usually make an effort beyond just moving their mouth. Singing requires breathing the same way talking does, but in a more pronounced fashion because it usually requires more oxygen and on specific beats that match how you sing a song.
Sometimes, whether as a stylistic choice, or because no one bothers to tell the actors what they look like, actors do not breathe visibly and in time as they are mouthing the words to musical numbers. Mind you, this even happens in music videos, from people who know how to sing. And it looks ridiculous. Like they are magical marionettes that have no lungs. Like song just pours from their bodies without any effort. Part of the reason why we watch singers sing at all is to form an emotional connection to music, but in order to do that, we have to feel every note—how hard it was to hit the high D and why they broke on that specific lyric. If no one looks like they’re actually singing, then who honestly cares how good it sounds?
Where There’s Fire, There’s No Smoke (Well, Maybe A Little)
There was a fire safety video I watched as a schoolchild; in it, the all-knowing voiceover person explained that real fires look nothing like they do on film. In a real fire, smoke is one of the main components. It’s the reason you might die well before the flames reach you—suffocation happens pretty quick when there’s no air in the room.
But in every house fire on film, it’s easy to run from room to room, to maneuver in temperatures that would likely melt flesh, and most importantly, it’s easy to see. There’s never much smoke in film fires. Of course there isn’t; if you can’t see the characters, you can’t know what’s going on. You can’t witness their heroics! But wouldn’t it be nice to see someone tackle it even semi-realistically? Have people crawl along the floor the way they’re supposed to rather than just running out the door as soon as someone authoritative-looking tells them they can go because everything’s-gonna-be-okay-ma’am-I’ll-take-your-baby-for-now?
Related: No one ever touching the doors to find out if the next room is on fire, and grabbing doorknobs like it’s no big deal.
Cash Out of Thin Air
If the characters in your story are rich, awesome. It’s fun to live vicariously through the Tony Starks and Lord Peter Wimseys of the world. But lots of protagonists are broke. And that makes sense because the majority of the world is not rich, and can relate to characters who are strapped for cash. Some works make the point of figuring out a way for their characters to get money when they need it—in Supernatural we know that Sam and Dean get the majority of their money through credit card fraud and hustling pool, and the show leaves it at that so it doesn’t have to constantly explain where all that money for new flannel shirts is coming from.
But often the narrative never bothers to explain where characters get their money. Take The Wolverine, for example. Logan’s living in the woods of Canada, effectively homeless. He’s not bathing or shaving or eating much at all. He barely has a duffle bags-worth of stuff to his name. But when his radio starts acting up, he decides to head into town and get some new batteries. I guess he’s just hiding his debit card in his beard these days? Sleeping rough is a statement now? He’s working shifts down at the lumber yard whenever he needs to buy more protein bars to live on? We have no way of knowing because no one ever makes it clear. Maybe he found Xavier’s hedge fund and has been slowly draining it away. The Professor can’t need it anymore, right?
Face Bruises Are Not Cool
How often do heroes get punched in the face? Like real jaw-cracking, concussion-causing, stars-behind-the-eyes haymakers thrown at them from gigantic steroid laden opponents? It happens all the time. So much so that we’re completely desensitized to it. How much we’ve grown accustomed to violence as a culture is a conversation for another time, and it does make sense for superheroes not to show the same extent of damage that everyone else does—but what’s everyone else’s excuse? Don’t want to show the malformed black eye, fine… could I get a bruise? Just a bruise, that’s all I’m asking for! Something to prove that the hit landed at all.
In a way, I feel like this is part of a pervasive weirdness we have about letting actors get “ugly.” Some actresses get Oscar nods for deciding to look imperfect in super gritty roles, but overall, the general consensus is to not allow actors the chance to do anything that might make them look unattractive. Swollen jaws are not attractive. Broken noses are not attractive. Bloody teeth are not attractive. So we avoid them for the most part, usually unless the injuries in question are life-threateningly grave. And it’s just a little silly that we do.
Related: Crying is so pretty most of the time, because attractiveness again. Real crying? Not so pretty.
Squealing tires can be inevitable in certain situations, but in those situations the driver has typically made a mistake (and might be close to an accident). In film, it’s commonly used to give everyone a little thrill during chase scenes and the like. Never mind the fact that it means the person is driving badly. Never mind the fact that it just make the driver in question out to be reckless rather than serious about the action at hand.
But the part of this that really drives me nuts? When drivers who adore their cars do a burnout. Those characters with special vehicles that they consider a practical extension of their own body, who still decide to mess with their axles, drivetrain, transmission, you name it, like they have a car built for drag racing and that’s all they’re using it for. It makes no sense. Sure, it’s dramatic, and in the right moments it does make sense for the tires to make some noise—like when a car spins out of control in a speed scene—but outside of those parameters, no. It’s just a dumb action cue that could easily be replaced with one that works better.
Related: Wheels squealing on dirt roads—HOW ARE THEY DOING THAT?! HOW?
That Painting Wasn’t Painted Yet
I had this super snobby moment when I watched Troy (which was awful enough as it was on first viewing); during the sack of Troy the camera panned up to these Greek statues in the citadel. And I recognized them as a common example of Archaic Period Greek sculpture. The Iliad, which Troy was kind-of based on, is thought to occur in the 12th century BC. Those statues wouldn’t be created until centuries later in the 6th century BC. I threw M&Ms at the screen.
This would be less insulting were there not an entire profession of people dedicated to making sure those little whoopsies never took place. They’re called dramaturges. They dress you in period garb, they check your sets for anachronisms, they tell you what turns of phrase were in use during 1926. Which means that whoever artistically designed Troy either didn’t employ anyone to check their work, or they just didn’t care. And either of those choices are depressing to me—don’t we misrepresent history often enough as it is? I understand Troy was a bad action flick, but at least it could have gained some points for trying.
Related: Dropping Earth works of art into fantasy worlds with no explanation. Why are those unicorn tapestries in Once Upon A Time? You gotta give me something other than “Well, we had a replica in our prop department from another show….”
Don’t Check the Clock
How long does it take to drive from Point A to Point B? How long do we have to sit here and talk before the party starts? Visual storytelling demands that you mess with time because there’s no written narrative that conveniently lets the audience know how much of it is passing. But this leads to certain hiccups: like when a character has exactly 60 seconds to defuse a bomb, but it really takes more like five minutes with all that back and forth between them and the people on the other end of their bluetooth headsets.
It gets even better where travel is concerned—like when people arrive in other countries by plane and you know it’s the wrong time of day on the other side of the ocean. Or when someone takes a road trip that appears to go for less than half a day, when you know it would take 20+ hours to get across those four U.S. state lines. It’s not the worst timey-wimey offense that could be made, but it stands out because it’s almost as though no one expects the audience to notice.
We always notice.
So those are mine. My Top of the Pops—what are yours?
Emmet Asher-Perrin makes this funny cringe-y face when the sword makes that ’schwing’ noise. She has written essays for the newly released Doctor Who and Race and Queers Dig Time Lords. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.