Musings on Visuals

I know I’ve spoken about visual aids quite a bit before, but these are some musings on them that have come to mind of late:

I’ve tried to pinpoint what exactly makes visuals striking to me. What is it that sears an image into my brain; what is something I’ll never forget?

Such a thought comes with a bit of a bad connotation; often times the things that stand out strongest in our minds are those that are horrific or traumatizing. But that isn’t what I’m talking about — I’m not out to scar people with my writing. I’m just here to tell good stories.

On the other end of the spectrum, something striking could be miraculous or joyous. However such moments in a story should be reserved for the climax, or perhaps the resolution — you know, go out with a bang. If there’s extreme excitement (or terror) throughout an entire film, it’ll flatline at an albeit very intense yet eventually monotonous level.

The same goes for the “trauma” aspect — the whole piece can’t constantly shock you. Eventually you’ll become desensitized and bored. This is, of course, following a traditional narrative arc — if you don’t want to abide by anything of the sort, then by all means disregard this.

So I’ve boiled my thoughts down to this: something that is worth remembering is usually out of the ordinary. It stands out against the expected and predictable; its neither.

Something unordinary could be as simple as a man who usually drives to work taking the bus. But while that’s certainly not what the audience expects, it’s hardly interesting.

I’ve noticed a trend in film scores that opened my eyes to the forthcoming thoughts on visuals. Whenever there’s an exciting action sequence, one might expect a very intense, high-tempo musical accompaniment to mount the tension. But what I find more effective is a slow, tranquil score that reflects little of the action occurring over it.

For example — this being in a similar vein, as the film I’m about to reference is certainly not in the “action” genre — Mystic River is a thriller that handles some very sensitive, serious content: kidnapping, rape, murder. Yet most of the score contains this string-heavy, orchestral sound that is in what I believe to be a major key.

Here’s a scene that might clear things up, but its a bit of a spoiler: When Jimmy (Sean Penn) discovers that the girl found in the woods is in fact his daughter, he absolutely loses it. He is so inconsolable that it takes around a dozen police officers to restrain him; he writhes and struggles in the center of a dense crowd of blue and cries out at the loss of his daughter.

However, playing over the scene is the musical theme of the film, which has an almost triumphant cathedral sound to it. It isn’t morose or even macabre — which I would expect surrounding the death of a loved one. Yet somehow it seems to convey Jimmy’s loss even better, I believe. It creates a conflict in one’s head — you hear this beautiful, engaging score when something so horrible has just occurred, and it amplifies the pure tragedy of the scene.

The score’s more uplifting sounds are unexpected; I’d even go so far as to say they’re ironic. Which leads me to my little theory about visuals:

Perhaps the best way to impact an audience is through this creation of uncharacteristic conflict. It doesn’t have to occur constantly; I’d say it’s best used when trying to make a point or deliver a message.

Just a simple thought: let’s say you’ve got the sound of water running, and you want to accompany it with some sort of image. How about a burning candle?

It’s contradictory; fire and water are opposites. Not that such a conflict needs to be so drastic (two polar opposites), but it’s the idea. In the same way, if you had the audio for a crackling fire, accompanying it with a shot of a flowing river would again mislead the audience.

But you wouldn’t forget either of these, would you? It would stick in the back of your brain like gum wedged stubbornly between the treads of a boot.

Of course, it isn’t so simple when, say, you’ve got a chunk of dialogue and you need some sort of unforgettable visual to break it up. And I’m not saying that this is always the route to follow — or that it is one at all. It’s just an inkling of a theory that perhaps there’s something that makes contradiction particularly memorable.

Something else to be considered would be working with extremes: If you’ve got two well-to-do businessmen walking down a city block and they’re discussing, say, existentialism — meaninglessness — how about they pass by a homeless person asking for change? Somebody who’s actually at rock bottom and has more cause to assume there is no purpose to life than two men at the top of the social ladder?

Again, these are just musings.

It can come from anywhere, too — it doesn’t have to be the visuals. Plots take surprising twists in any decent film; you want to mislead your audience to some degree.

For me, however, the struggle arrives in the form of the visuals. I write, and as a screenwriter I need to develop a visual style that stands out on its own. Hopefully these kinds of thoughts can foster growth in the works of anybody looking to do the same.