Posted by: kshayes513 | July 13, 2014

Using TV and Movies as Research (with Dire Examples)

Should you ever use what you see on TV and in movies as reference material for a topic you know little about?

Here’s a hint: “Don’t try this at home” applies to a lot more than the stuff they do on Mythbusters.

Today’s dire example is this online exchange between a friend of mine who is designing a sculpture of a cybernetic horse, and a friend of hers (unknown to me) who offers advice on the cybernetic horse’s capabilities and behaviors. The sculptor is a professional horsewoman. The advice giver, apparently, is not. [Names omitted and some details changed for anonymity].

Sculptor/horsewoman (thinking aloud): Would a cybernetic horse rear?

Advisor: I think the horse rearing up, as a means to go into a full run would still be there. Rearing up in fear or being startled probably would not.

Sculptor/horsewoman: Horses rearing up to go in full run? I don’t follow….

This is where I almost fell off my chair laughing. If you’re a horse person, you know why. If not, let me explain:

"Hiyo Silver" can't easily get "away" from this position!

“Hiyo Silver” can’t easily get “away” from this position.

Horses do not “rear up” to launch themselves into a full run, for the same reason that human sprinters don’t start a race standing upright. You can’t push off that way, no matter how many legs you have.

Nor do horses “rear up” in fear or when startled. They shy, which means they jump sideways and spin around to get a good look at whatever startled them. In fact, horses don’t even “rear up.” They rear. Since “to rear” means “to stand up on the hind legs,” “rear up” is redundant, and incorrect. My friend the sculptor was being very polite here…

The point is, my friend’s advisor seems to be giving advice based on what he has seen horses do in too many movies and TV shows, and probably in a ton of fantasy and fan art as well. And that means, based on material that is always made to look as exciting and dramatic as possible, by people who usually know just as little, and care even less, about how real horses behave.

Because I’m a 3rd generation horse professional myself, screen horse misbehavior is my pet peeve (all that extraneous, dubbed whinnying and neighing!!! Eeehhhh! Real horses are quiet most of the time, and especially when they’re frightened).

But ask an expert in any discipline what he or she thinks of how her specialty is portrayed on screen. A friend who’s an RN and doula (childbirth coach), can’t stand to watch birth scenes, because they always get everything wrong. People who actually use swords will give you a detailed breakdown of how swordfighting on screen is choreographed to look very flashy and be very safe. My programmer friends routinely mock movie dialog about hackers and cybercrime. And everybody who knows about armor will tell you that “boob armor” will actually kill any woman who wears it into combat (see for yourself in this essay from

So whenever you are worldbuilding about topics that you don’t know much about, (and when don’t we? we’re fantasy and science fiction creators), please do yourself and your audience an huge favor, and look stuff up. Thanks to the internet, your research for a minor topic (something you use in one or two scenes) needn’t take long at all. One article on normal childbirth, a video of a swords presentation at a convention, whatever.

If the topic is central to your story, put some time into it. You’ll almost certainly get some terrific new information to enrich your world even more. And it never hurts to find someone knowledgeable in the subject to review your draft, too.

Have you got a pet peeve that is nearly always done wrong on screen? Or any outstandingly bad examples of an author basing specialized material only on how it appears in TV and pop culture? Please share in the comments.

A PERSONAL NOTE: I’m finally back. My apologies for the very long break in posts. I will be working to post much more regularly for the rest of the year. And thanks for staying with me.



  1. Oh my gosh yes. Lack of research can make you look very very silly. Yes, it’s making stuff up, but don’t base things off of a real thing when you dno’t know how it works.

  2. A caution: don’t just stop at the first place you find information if you’re using the Internet, unless it’s a highly reputable site! To be sure, I’d say find at least three unrelated sites that say more or less the same thing — and then, to make assurance doubly sure, check it in a print source, too! I know, print sources aren’t always 100% correct either, but better safe than sorry.

    My pet peeve? The ways librarians are (mis)represented in just about every pop culture reference I can think of. (Given my previous comment, that shouldn’t surprise anyone!) J.K. Rowling, I love you dearly, but you have much to answer for in that regard! 🙂

  3. Marilyn is a college reference librarian of many years’ experience, so her advice on research is always the best!

    And yes, because I’ve been your friend for so long, I also dislike the stereotypical screen librarian! Almost as much as I dislike the stereotypical screen scientist!

  4. Fire sprinklers. In every movie (and at least a few books), when the sprinkler system is set off, it’s all of it. Sometimes by using a fire alarm manual pull station. And boy, the water that comes out looks potable, too!

    Nope (of course). The point of sprinklers is that only the head or heads nearest the heat source that activates them goes off – not-quite-pinpoint fire suppression (and possible extinguishment). Pull stations only set off the fire alarm, not the sprinkler system – completely separate items (caveat: there is one exception, but it’s rare and only used in dangerous industrial environments. Not in retail centers).

    And water that’s been sitting in iron pipes for months, years, possibly decades? Foul, filthy, stinking reeking black semi-viscous guck. Takes a couple of minutes for new, kinda clean water to make an appearance. No couple in a rom-com is going to be happily kissing under the artificial rain – they’ll be gagging and running for shelter, and calculating how much it’s going to cost to replace their now-ruined wardrobe – that goo ain’t washing out.

  5. John, that is great information! Now I’m going to laugh myself silly every time I see a sprinkler system activate in a movie.

  6. I have a happy rejoinder to my comment: In the movie Big Hero 6, there is a building fire early on in the story. I heard the fire alarm going off in the background of the movie and knew before the characters reacted that there was a fire alarm going off – because, for once, someone did their research on what a fire alarm sounds like! Hint: it’s not some random siren or buzzing sound. They actually used the sound of a piezo-electric sounder set to the “temporal” pattern, just like in real life. The movie had me anyways, but even more so when I heard that and realized someone paid attention to details.

  7. That’s cool, John. Realistic detail is what makes the fantastic believable. I don’t expect anyone to get every technical detail right in a book or movie, but I love it when they make an effort to be realistic rather than just going with “Hollywood real” aka fake movie cliches.

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