Monday, July 02, 2007

The Art of Visual Storytelling

Take a close look at the painting above. (Thank you, David Bordwell, for your superb piece on narrative paintings.) This is a special moment, isn’t it? Notice their body language. He seems casual, relaxed, but detached. His legs are pointing away from her. Is he just shy and that’s why he has three books with him? I wonder, is he working up the courage to converse with her? Is he interested in her? His left hand is conveniently close to brushing her arm. She, on the other hand, seems stiff and stoic. She wants to interact with him. I dare say, she wants to be touched. She’s rigid in her posture, almost nervous, and with her right hand unfolding the shawl, there’s a hint of invitation.

Would you like to know its title?
Married by Walter Sadler. To quote Mr. David Bordwell, “Once the title tells us that the couple are husband and wife, we can infer that their passion has subsided, largely through the husband’s self-absorbed inattention. Did he really need to take three books into the garden? The single-word title also lets us see certain elements as iconographic clues. The woman’s white dress and bouquet recall the wedding, and the fallen badminton birdie and racket suggest an earlier time when they played together. Kristin sees sexual symbolism in the flowers in her lap and the books in his. The gallery’s caption suggests that the turtle is going off to hibernate and that the blocked-off back garden suggests no future for the relationship.”

I can imagine this as an opening scene in a film. The audience would be sucked right in with curiosity, wouldn’t they? Not only that, I would rather watch a scene like this with music and no dialogue and just observe these two characters interact and wonder what’s going to happen next than five pages of talk. Everything we need to know about this couple is told to us through visuals and body language and acting. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say it would be rare to read about a scene like this one without dialogue. We would only discover a scene like this in a script if it was composed by a writer-director for his/her own film. Screenwriters are filmmakers, too, but I believe too many screenwriters (amateurs and pros alike) don’t think visually enough, which is in part why I wrote such a glowing review of
Cinematic Storytelling. It isn’t enough to write a good story. We have to render that story cinematically.

Consider this next painting, which was also in Bordwell’s article.

Two seemingly prosperous young women are seated together in a garden. One is reading a letter. The other just observes and listens. The painting is by Marcus Stone, dates from 1889, and is titled,
Her First Love Letter. To quote Bordwell, “The girl on the left, bathed in light, leaning forward eagerly and wearing the pale frilly dress, can be seen as the more inexperienced of the pair, caught up in the anticipation of the young man’s ardor. The more worldly woman sits relaxed, perhaps a little skeptical but also tolerant of the ways of young love… Narrative paintings like this are evidently one source of early cinema’s approach to staging and composition. This ‘full shot’ somewhat recalls the sort of thing we see throughout European filmmaking of the first twenty years.” (Those of you who watched all the episodes of Cinema Europe can certainly attest to that.)

Marcus Stone had some other interesting narrative paintings.

Consider these:

Notice the lady in the background dressed in black, on the other side of the wall, hiding in the woods, and jealously watching this moment.

It’s titled “My lady is a widow and childless.”

And here we have an interesting painting. This one is titled “In Love.” Hmm... Are they really?

Well, it seems to me there must be some obstacles between them that’s getting in the way of their love, wouldn’t you agree?

I also love the works of
Cali Rezo.

The above image reminds me of a quote by Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish cinematographer, Sven Nykvist: “The truth always lies in the character’s eyes. It is very important to light so the audience can see what’s behind each character’s eyes. That’s how the audience gets to know them as human beings. It opens up their souls."

Consider the different emotions conveyed in the image below when a character covers her face with her hands compared to when she hides her head in her arms.

In these next two images, the light and darkness poured onto the females implies a conflicted inner nature:

In fact, these two images bring to mind
Billy Mernit’s Light and Shadow posts (Part One and Part Two). (Billy also just celebrated his two-year blogoversary. Congrats, Billy! You're still an inspiration to me. Wait. I just had an anniversary. Hey, congrats to ME! WOO HOO! Hehehe..)

I’m going to do a few more articles like this. It would be great if other screenwriters blogged about visuals and the meaning of images.

I recall Robert Evans saying in “The Biggest Mistake the Writers Make:”

I can pick up a screenplay and flip through the pages. If all I see is dialog, dialog, dialog, I won’t even read it. I don’t care how good the dialog is – it’s a moving picture. It has to move all the time… Screenwriters do not get the lesson… It’s not the stage. A movie audience doesn’t have the patience to sit and learn a lesson. Their eyes need to be dazzled. The writer is the most important element in the entire film because if it ain’t on the page it ain’t going to be on the screen.


Anonymous said...

Married and Her First Love Letter are indeed worth a thousand words. I'll take impressionism - or a painting that tells a story - over a Jackson Pollack or Picasso any day.

Maybe you can comment, MM, but if someone reading for a producer picks up a script from an unknown writer, and all they see on page after page are shot descriptions trying to tell the story visually, what are the odds that reader will bother reading the script?

crossword said...

Wow. The Cali Rezo is superb.

Very much like a Gustav Klimt... that lush background from whence these beautiful creatures emerge, more interesting than even THAT background.

Thx for sharing, MM. Great idea for a post.

Anonymous said...

I think the one artist that has been an inspiration to me and my writing is Edgar Degas. Within the impressionists he was sort of a pioneer in regards to perspective... one of the first to, rather than painitng a staged scenario, draw from memory. His compositions were often off-center, his subjects engaged with tasks or other people - interacting, rather
than looking at the artist. His paintings look like snippets of life, especially since he loved to portray the common, poor folk. He loved the behind the scenes of the balett dancers - their work and struggle for no money but merely a small meal and shelter... it truly comes across in his paintings. It feels like you're walking through a hallway and as you walk past an open door, you catch a glimpse of life... unaware of your presence. One of my favorites of his is "The Millinery Shop" which depicts a young woman (employee) in a hat shop working on another hat. It feels like we're watching her through the window and she's unaware. Some finished hats are on display... one of them is positioned in such that it lines up with her head as if she was wearing it. But we know this girl is too poor and common to wear one of her own creations. And if she did, she'd get some interesting looks from the upper class and the shop owner! Very inronic picture.
Another artist like that comes to mind - Mary Cassatt, whose favorite subject was mother and child. Nothing special about that for her time, HOWEVER she as well went against the trend and chose to capture real life/humanity. In most paintings, mother and child are engaged with one another. How many kids do you really think can sit still and look at the artist for hours (yet most mother/child portraits were done like that up until then)? So, why not paint the truth and something everyone can relate to? Inronically, Mary and Edgar were good friends.

Great topic!

Laura Deerfield said...

Well, as is obvious from the name of my blog (Visual Poetry) - this is a subject I am passionate about. So much can be told with a simple image, add in movement and sound (not even thinking about dialogue yet) and the possibilities exist for tremendous richness.

A few posts where I talk about the visual aspect of storytelling (a lot on the use of color and on the use of objects):

Cat People (some fun stuff with the costumes in this)

Communicating with Color

Storytelling Objects - the use of props as plot devices in Dead Again

and most recently Three Colors. Blue, especially, is a strongly visual story. The protagonist spends most of her time alone, so the film relies on images, expressions, and gestures for most of the story.

Laura Deerfield said...

Joe - I think that it's important in a screenplay to hold onto a strong image in your head, but to put that image into an active scene. You have to learn to be economical, and communicate a lot about the image with the tone and word choice - so that you can use a single sentence to imply a lot.

Then you sandwich it with action, and a little dialogue. For instance, if the first painting, Married, were the opening of a screenplay - it might go something like this:


On a stone bench, in the midst of a well-manicured garden sits JOSEPH BLACKWELL, reading a book. More books are piled in his lap.

The bench is pushed up against a wall, and blocks an archway - the entrance to a disused section of the grounds.

As he reads, a badminton birdie lands a few feet in front of him.

LINDY BLACKWELL approaches. In one hand, she has roses, just cut from the bushes. In the other - a badminton racket. She smiles, and tries to catch his eye. He raises an eyebrow, and glances over the edge of his book, but only for a moment.

Lindy drops the racket with a little sigh, and sits on the other end of the bench.

She sets the roses in her lap and fidgets with them. She adjusts her shawl, opening it up, reaching her arm closer to her husband, leaning in his direction.

Without looking, Joseph seems to sense her closeness, and responds by leaning further away.

Lindy straightens up, dropping some of the roses onto the ground, and lowers her gaze.

GimmeABreak said...

What's a screenwriter to do? Robert Evans says movies are visual and he doesn't like reading dialog yet we hear so many stories about readers flipping through screenplays and reading ONLY the dialog. If a writer were really good with subtext, the dialog would reveal absolutely nothing true about the SP.

Personally, I'd love to write a silent movie. No dialog at all, only descriptions of the images and action.

Michelle77 said...

I admit it, I'm not the best when it comes to visualization, so I really liked this blog. I've never thought of looking at paintings before as almost scenes for film. God, othat's a cool idea and I'm buying "Cinematic Storytelling."

But I don't completely agree with Robert Evans. Yes, films are moving pictures, but some of my favorite films are dialogue driven with little visual stimulation. So there. :-)

(Joe - I'm sorry, but you're wrong. Pollack and Picasso rock!)

Unknown said...

I second the notion that the Cali Rezo painting is awesome. I'm still a neophyte on the concepts of visual storytelling. My perception is that if you don't have all the other elements of story down, including dialogue (Michelle ;)) that the visual details won't matter that much. But this is one of the building blocks you need to really wow an audience.

Great stuff as always MM

Anonymous said...

I'm with gimme, I'd love to do a silent film. Take LES TRIPLETTES DE BELLEVILLE for instance. I love that movie but I know a lot of people who don't... but there is soooo much going on in that film and how much dialogue? lol You simply didn't need the dialogue and the beauty is that interpretations may differ but so what? My understanding of MARRIED for instance is that the focus is really on the woman - she's the active, the man is the passive. He's the one in a hybernating type of state... comfortable and yet oblivious. He takes his wife for granted. The wife is edgy, almost as if she was about to do something risky or perhaps she has a secret she dare not speak of. She's the one who wants to "play" and she's thinking "since you won't play with me, I wish I was free." The "window" behind them suggests her desire very much so and classifies the space they sit in as a prison. Women in history have up to a certain point been depicted in a certain way. Endless amounts of pictures portray women in little rooms, writing letters, starring out the window. That's because they weren't allowed to do much of anything else, especially the rich/royal. They were there to look pretty and pop out the next king. That's why a lot of the early portraits of women were in profile or three quarter view... hardly ever was the woman looking straight at us. It was a message of ownership from the husband "You're allowed to look at her, but do not engage with her... she's mine!"
In that sense, I very much get an ownership type of feel from the man in the MARRIED picture. If it was about the "lost flame" between them, I don't think the woman would be as tense as she is. She would be bored, depressed. Instead, this woman is up to something. *suspiciously* I bet she's having an affair! LOL

Christian H. said...

Great post. Images are something that I try to use in every scene(boy that sounds stupid), like light illuminating a face or a face going into darkness.

One mnemonic device I love is wardrobe. I think that is the easiest way to project a change.

Like the stuffy guy loosens his tie or the slut stops wearing her little sister's clothes or the introverted woman changes her hairstyle.

Even changes in diction are cinematic as a character's personality lives in the pronunciation.

I kind of agree about too much dialog, but character-driven stories sort of need more dialog to build conflict as you can't start a car chase in a poignant drama (well, at least not before I said that - think I should try?).

I think that's why a lot of scripts I see CAP items so they can be recognized as contributing to the scene.

There is just a fine line between too much exposition and too much dialog. One movie may play better with lots of words, some with lots of description and that's in the same genre.

I just feel that you can't change your voice. EVER. If you are getting good feedback, it means that you're producing good pages and NO ONE really knows from one minute to the next how subjectivity will play out in the mind of the producer.

Mystery Man said...

Joe - I frickin' LOVE impressionists! I can do a perfect Al Pacino! Hehehe... With respect to your question, this isn't about eliminating dialogue, just thinking more about visual statements.

Crossword - Thanks, man. Cali Rezo's images are all computer, if you can imagine that.

Sabine - Ahh, yes, those beautiful ballerinas. Bless, Degas. I really enjoyed reading that. Both of your comments.

Laura - I knew you'd enjoy this. I thought of you when I posted this. And okay, I really loved the color post. Guys, it's great: "American Beauty is an excellent example. Using the emotional associations we already have with red, the color is used to accent passion and sensuality. The red rose posy that is so tightly arranged is like Carolyn's restrained and controlled sexuality. Lester fantasizes about those red rose petals falling, coming loose, slipping wetly from a mouth..." And in the second color article: "In Blue, it represents her grief. Some people have said it represents her moments of peace, but I think that's wrong. It's her most intense moments of feeling, when she immerses herself in the grief. And in some of those moments she finds a kind of peace. The color is tied to the memories and feelings she's trying to cast away. Ultimately, she's unable to disconnect herself, and it's only through accepting her connections, and through immersing herself in memories that she is able to move forward. The completion of her husband's final work, a piece about unification, is the act by which she
a) remembers her husband on a personal level
b) memorializes him in the public sphere
c) channels her emotions into a creative work
d) uses her connection and memory to move forward into the future and establish herself as her own person."

Just great. Superb, Laura.

Pat - The thing is, everyone's different. Not everyone ONLY reads dialogue. It all depends. What are we to do? Make every detail count whether it be dialogue or visuals. It's on my list of ideas to write a modern day silent film. Well, maybe just a short.

Michelle - I promise, you will LOVE "Cinematic Storytelling." Thanks. By the way, glad I know you.

Bob - thanks so much. These are just things a writer should keep in the back of his/her mind when writing.

Christian - Nice... Wardrobe's incredibly important, but you can't belabor too much on what characters are wearing. Thanks for that. We're also going to study exposition soon, and try to identify the best ways of handling it.


Christian H. said...

Thx MM,
I wasn't saying that it should be "overdone," or made to be the only change, but it sems to be working well in one script I'm working on.

I try to think of as many images as possible to imply things. I'm getting better at it I think.

They work even better for "off-screen" happenings. Like the diploma that wasn't there, or different books on a book shelf, and especially calendars or clocks. They can very subtly mark the passage of time. (weather doesn't work in say LA)

And speaking of exposition, that has been a real point of study for me. I am up to around 50 scripts now and I see a lot of similarities n produced work.

I, myself, like to be as minimal as possible. Like with the clothes, I never describe things too much (costume designers have to do something) so that the location and prop guys can ply their trade.

I think that's a big problem with scripts from new writers. They want to describe too much detail.

I try to describe only relevant to scene items or sometimes relevant to personality items.

I mean if you look at "Strangers n a Train," Hitchcock uses just shoes to describe two different men.

Of course again, you have to be subtle in the description, rather than colors use fit, i.e. "A departure from her usual skin tight and sheer."

The reason I brought up clothes is I am at the end of a comig-of-age drama where the protag changes her style of dress as an "emotional reaction to action."

The technique admittedly is more profound with women than men, but both can work.

I have this other one where a woman continually gets a worse run in her stockings (not the same pair) as she deteriorates emotionally.

Anyway, great post. Back to the script. Almost done.

Anonymous said...

Michelle: I just finished Cinematic Storytelling and like MM, definitely recommend it. The book may actually be more useful to students shooting a film for the first time, but there are a lot of great ideas on how to convey information in a script without using talking heads.

It'll definitely help you write like Degas, which is good, instead of like Picasso or Pollack, which is bad!

Anonymous said...

LOL Can't say I was ever a fan of Pollock, or most of Picasso's work but even in abstract art there's a story and/or a purpose. If done right (and I consider abstract one of the toughest styles in art) it's not as random as it may seem. Color theory is the obvious one... but there are emotions and stories in shapes, their positioning, repetition and spacing. In a musical sense, you could call that rhythm. Imagine three blank sheets of paper:
1. there are 4 big, black squares that are closely placed next to oneanother at the bottom of the page
2. There are 10 tiny black squares placed with liberal but even spaces at the top of the page.
3. There are swirls of different-sized squares all over the page.

What's the emotion you get from each sheet when considering each square as a musical note?
In that sense, Picasso and Pollock had fantastic rhythm and there was a lot more going on than it seemed. You can easily translate this to writing as well - the tone and pace you set, etc. Cubist are fascinating because a lot of them, rather than drawing from one perspective, draw multiple perspectives at a time. So, imagine you're looking at a shoebox. Depending on where you sit, you'll always only see so many sides of it... never all. Cubists will consider all sides and combine them into one view. Translate that into writing and I think you've got something interesting going for you ... if done right of course :)

crossword said...

"Using the emotional associations we already have with red, the color is used to accent passion and sensuality."

Such a versatile color. :)

Wasn't red used VERY effectively in "The Sixth Sense" (1999)? Not for passion in that sense, but for a form of tension & anxiety. Foreboding. LOL.

Also, red can be very aggressive IMHO. Remember the threatening behavior of Cypher in "The Matrix" (1999) when he was in the restaurant betraying the others to Agent Smith? He was tucking into a juice red steak.

Actually, so was Gary Oldman's character of scumbag supreme Sheldon Runyon in "The Contender" (2000) when - again in a restaurant - he was tucking into a juicy red steak and confronting Laine Hanson.

OMG I love films so much. Please... won't somebody help me... ? ;)

Laura Deerfield said...

"OMG I love films so much. Please... won't somebody help me... ? ;)"

Ah, I'm afraid I'm in the same boat!

(and thanks for the props MM - youze a sweetie)

Tim Clague said...

This is an interesting post MM.

Mainly because as writers we are informed to write LESS descriptive detail in our scripts. And we can all see why. Readers tend to skip reading it. They just read the dialogue.

The more I work at it the more I so fundamentally disagree with the old fashioned way of scripting.

Its had its day. Its of the 1930s. We need a new more visual method. Its within our capacity to do that these days. Yes - for some films an old-fashioned script written in courier seems worthwhile.

But does it for other scripts? If you read the script for 2001 you'll see what a mean.

Mystery Man said...

mTim - Great comment.

I believe that one can still be visual while also conveying visual ideas with a minimum word count.

And I've never bought into this argument that execs and readers only read dialogue. While it may be true at first, you better believe that if they are seriously considering a greenlight, they will eventually and absolutely scrutinize every single detail.

It all comes back to the same principle: always, always make every detail COUNT.


Anonymous said...

Thought I'd elaborate on the notion of vertical/horizontal "rhythm" and my view of the "Wdding" picture.

If you look at the bricks of the wall, you can see the horizontal, very quick repetition of the bricks. They are tiny, detailed and together form a heavy mass that sits on the shoulders of the couple. Translating this to music it would be a fast paced ticking type of sound to me that represents tension. In regards to the picture, I think of it as the woman's mind racing.
Next, look at the larger shapes the green grass creates, followed by the brown area, the shape of the couch and then through the arch the brown area in the distance. Large, heavy shapes going from the bottom and traveling into the distance. In terms of music, this could sound like a big drum that fades... in regards to the picture: as the moment passes them by.

Hope that makes sense :)

Mystery Man said...

I love it! That was great!

Unknown said...

Wow, thanks for the post and all of the comments. I'm new to all of this screenwriting jiz.

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