Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 3 - The power of images

A great movie has three great images. This wisdom was imparted to me by a producer decades ago. I've always kept it in mind, and I've made a point in all my stories – whether scripts, novels, or short stories — to take a step back and check to see if I had images that meant something to me.

For my current work, I decided to explore imagery more methodically. I listed 10 films I love and, under each, noted three visuals that first came to mind. I didn't research or review or do any preparation, and I was very careful to avoid movies where the trailers were too familiar.

All those images were freighted with emotions, and, in my mind's eye, I was more likely to see clips than stills. For most, I could easily remember what happened before and after the images.

My next step was to note next to each image whose eyes it was seen through. Some seemed to be godlike views. For example, the transition from bone to satellite in 2001 A Space Odyssey. Some were a little more personal. In Casablanca, when Rick and Captain Renault walk away together, the camera shows both men, but it's arguably Rick's point of view. The look on Doc's face in West Side Story is from Tony's point of view. And there is an interesting level of irony because I feel Doc's anxiety and I know Tony doesn’t.

Doc: Buenas noches? So that's why you made it a fair fight...
Tony: I'm gonna see her tomorrow an' I can't wait!
Doc: Tony... things aren't tough enough?
Tony: Tough? Doc, I'm in love!
Doc: And you're not frightened?
Tony: Should I be?
Doc: [after a pause] No. I'm frightened enough for the both of us.

For the most effective image in my collection, everything came together to connect immediacy, emotion, action, and character. It's when photographer Jeff Jeffries in Hitchcock's Rear Window feeds flashbulb after flashbulb into his camera to blind his assailant. The hero has gone from selfish voyeur to a participant who has taken on his responsibilities as a member of the community. He fights back with a weapon that is distinctly his. He's fighting for his life. And the visual itself is stunning and a perfect fit for cinema.

Many of the images I listed are visually arresting and perfect in tone. In The Natural, Iris Gaines, in her haloed hat, rising from the crowd to offer the redemption Hobbs needs so he can regain his power. The horrible triumph of Salieri in Amadeus as Mozart's shrouded body slips into the common grave. Joe Gillis's body floating face down in the pool in Sunset Boulevard.

At this point of my exploration, I looked for patterns. An essential question I asked myself was, why do these images resonate with me?

I won't go into any deep analysis here, but I was surprised to find how often images had to do with previously powerless people who found the capacity within themselves to make a difference. Similarly, there were cases where people who seized power for good reasons were nonetheless destroyed. Moments of redemption were also common among the images I'd chosen.

This exercise has provided me with insights as to my tastes, my concerns, and how the great artists of film have used imagery to make their work indelible. So, if you want to try this yourself, here are the steps:
  1. List about 10 films that are your favorites. Be leery of those that are less personal – many older films tend to use an omniscient point of view. Also be careful of those instances where clips from the trailers are fixed in your mind.
  2. Note down the first three images that come to mind for each of the films you've chosen. Don't spend a lot of time thinking about whether you have the "best" images. This is about you, your memory, and your emotional responses.
  3. Determine whose eyes you see the scene through. This can be as direct as the photographer's view of the murderer in Rear Window or have the distance of Rick's walk into the sunset at the end of Casablanca.
  4. Give yourself the opportunity to feel what you felt when you first saw this scene. This may take a while. In fact, shifts in emotions may need to take place throughout your day. It's not a bad idea to contemplate one image, write the emotion down (or sequence of emotions for that image if it's a clip), and do something else for a while before returning to your list to consider a new image.
  5. Analyze the visual content and see if you can figure out what about it touches you and makes it distinct and brilliant.
  6. Look across all the images that you've selected and see if there are any patterns that provide insights you might use to improve your work. Make this personal. Focus on the elements and characteristics that resonate with you.
If this exercise works for you, it may provide some direction on how to more effectively use imagery in your storytelling. It also may offer an opportunity to deepen the emotion and meaning of your work.

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