Tuesday, 9 November 2021

This Thing About Scale

The most recent post on False Machine is an interesting one. It concerns the way in which a sense of scale is created in a film, book, etc. What makes a setting "feel" big, as opposed to small?

I am tempted to say that Alien is the paradigmatic example of a film that manages to convey a sense that its setting is one of vast size - i.e., that somewhat realistically depicts intergalactic scale. The Nostromo itself feels huge, like an island upon which the crew cling like tiny limpets; its distance from earth is given visceral reality by the awesome frigidity and loneliness of the cinematography, score and diagetic sound. It is a haunted house film at heart, but the haunted house sits at the heart of an ocean of infinite size, and you feel that.

But I am a big fan of Michael Oakeshott's technique of setting up binary opposites as aids to reflection, and there is a ready made pair of such opposites, possessing a neat symmetry (or, perhaps I should say, asymmetry) in the form of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the JJ Abrams directed Star Trek films. The setting in the former seems quintessentially big. That in the latter seems quintessentially small. Let us explore why, across various metrics derived from the fundamental diametric opposition between these two cultural artefacts:

  • Length. TNG is, in total, well over 100 hours long; each Trek film is about 2. Time pressure compresses the story, and this can tend to produce a feeling of squashed scale.
  • Episodic versus non-episodic nature. TNG's episodic feel makes it really a set of 170 or so individual stories. That's 170 potential worlds to explore off the bat. A film cannot really compete with that and retain coherence.
  • Mood. There is no doubt that the stately, unrushed feel of TNG, contrasting with the frenetic approach that characterises all of JJ Abrams' films and to which Star Trek is no exception, contributes to a sense of roominess. JJ Abrams' galaxy feels tiny - like the Enterprise can zip across it in a matter of hours - because he needs to cram in event after event after event; there is necessarily no time to breathe between them, and hence no journey time and no sense of great size.
  • Audience expectation. I choose this term ahead of the more accusatory original, which was 'respect for the audience'. Partly because of the period in which it was created, but partly also because of the emphasis of the writers, TNG expects its audience to be patient. Each episode features many shots of the Enterprise just kind of zipping along from A to B, suggesting extended travel times. Abrams' Trek has none of this: he doesn't like to give his audience even a second within which to become bored. Why, then, waste many seconds on shots of space ships just flying through space? The consequence is a small-seeming galaxy, rapidly traversed. 
  • Themes. All action, all the time, often creates the need for events to happen in rapid succession. Again, this has the byproduct of cutting out downtime, which means, of course, cutting out space within which there could be the suggestion of extended travel. Musing over moral dilemmas, technical conundrums, and the other kind of chamber-pieces which TNG specialised in have nothing of the same requirements; you could have an entire storyline play out over weeks or months of a journey between planets (though I don't think the TNG writers were ever particularly explicit about how long journeys were taking).
  • Budget. Perversely, a higher budget can make for a more cramped feel. The bigger the budget, the more stuff there is. The more stuff there is, the more dense the action. The more dense the action, the more the audience gets the feeling that there just isn't a lot of space (no pun intended) to fit everything in.

None of these metrics is dispositive in itself. Coronation Street is 50 years long and counting, but that in itself does not make its setting feel big, for example. (Indeed, a lot of the TOS Trek films are even shorter than the Abrams ones, and yet the scale of their setting feels much bigger. Think of Wrath of Khan, for instance, which manages to communicate a feeling of gargantuan scale almost as effectively as Alien.) But in combination they tilt the feelings of the audience in one direction or another.

One could easily think of a different pair of opposites for novels. On the one hand, The Lord of the Rings, on the other, Westeros?


  1. Well on the show you could just feel Westeros shrinking in the later seasons as if the Nothing from The Neverending Story was gnawing away at it.

    Don't think Westeros in the books is very small at all but the ways in which Martin describes Westeros is too small it's just done in a very different way from how Tolkein conveys size. Tolkien's world is post-apocalyptic in its vast emoty stretches of wilderness, while Westeros is jam packed with castles, and noble families, and characters, so damn many of them that it's hard for it to be small. Martin also makes a lot of individual locations freaking gigantic, see how much bigger the Iron Throne is in the books than in the show for example. Also Martin communicates distance by having people on one end of the continent have a lot of bad information about what is happening at the other end and struggling to figure out what to do when they mostly have just rumors to go on.

    However Martin does have his own problems with scale. He basically took a muddled pop history version of War of the Roses England and blew everything up to a vast scale without thinking about how making everything so much bigger would change things. A lot of it is like a 100 foot long ant in some old B-movie. Sure it's huge but it doesn't make sense that a 100 foot long ant would be able to walk around like a regular ant, just bigger.

    1. It's hard to know how big Westeros is in the books, but I think of it as being roughly as big as England. That seems to make sense in terms of the rapidity of travel between different areas.

      If we list all the flaws with A Song of Ice and Fire/Westeros we will be here all day, though!

    2. In the books it's not stated explicitly how big Westeros is but in interviews Martin has said that it's the side of South America. Now this doesn't make any sense but it's also obviously bigger than England. A good compromise is "roughly the Carolingian Empire" but in general Martin likes throwing about big numbers and then not thinking them through (see making the Wall huge and then having people shoot at the people on top with arrows or how the values of money throughout the series make no sense when compared to each other). But in it's own weird way, Westeros does give a good sense of scale in just how vast and sprawling the network of characters are and their relations to each other. I don't think any other work in all of fiction has that kind of spider's web of interconnected characters and (unlike understanding how Medieval politics work) Martin is actually pretty good at breathing life into his ginormous cast of characters are people in their own right not just walking plot devices (as you point out in your more recent post).

  2. Lord of the Rings feels big, I think, in large part because it keeps bringing in hints about faraway places and the distant past. Even at Pelennor, a thousand pages in, we're getting corsairs and black men like half-trolls from places that we assume have just as much history as the Shire or Rohan. And we're willing to assume it because the depth of those more familiar places has been established so carefully. Star Wars (the movie, not the franchise) succeeds to a big extent by doing the same visually: the places we see look very specific and rich in prosaic-scale detail. so when we get visual hints of the very old or very distant we can suspend disbelief to a reasonable extent. Alien does this better probably than any other film. And when that specificity of the prosaic is missing, we're less likely to wonder about about what it's like inthe unseen corners of this world and pretend it's there.

    1. This.

      By delving into the details of just a small place and time, and just getting hints of distant places, we get the sense of a setting much bigger, that our small point of view can't encompass entirely or in detail.

      In the Lord of the Rings, after hundreds and hundreds of pages, we can open the map and look at all those places we didn't see.

    2. Yes, that's right. Skilful hinting is important!

  3. I'm struggling with a complete disconnect on the Alien thing. Nostromo has always felt cramped, tiny, uncomfortable to me. The alien wreck is huge, sure, makes the humans feel lost in its weird vastness. And sure, space is big, but the ship itself is an ugly industrial environment with no thought of providing human comforts that a mostly-frozen crew wouldn't need anyway. It's made to feel even smaller by the relative size of the automated refinery thing it's dragging around. The crew feels isolated and unwelcome in the film but I never felt like they were lost inside their immediate shipboard environs, just cut off from outside help. Haunted house film, okay, but more of a lonely farmhouse with maybe a few outbuildings than a sprawling unknowable mansion.

    1. I have a totally different feel about it. Nostromo seems like a gargantuan, mostly empty, environment to me. Yes, the crew quarters are cramped, but I always got the impression that was because they were sitting underneath a vast array of mining machinery and a huge cargo hold for all the stuff that had been mined.

    2. That's the automated refinery they're hauling, and AFAIK the thing doesn't even have human (or xenomorph) compatible life support. Pretty sure it's mostly open to hard vacuum during flight (sure was in the novel) although maybe more recent retcons have changed that. The Nostromo itself is just the smaller ship that detaches and lands by the alien wreck. It's not tiny like (say) a Traveller Far Trader is, but it's a small fraction of the size of its payload. The ship's a no-frills space tug. Halfway surprising it even had a lifeboat, although maybe that's an Space-OSHA regulations thing. :)