Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Picture is Worth...Well, You Know

One of the most basic (and most important precepts) about film making is that the story most be told entirely by the visuals. Meaning that you should be able to watch a movie with the sound turned off and still get everything that's happening on screen and understand the whole film. The great film makers of the past knew this and that's what made their films so great.

Like any basic and irrefutable truth, I find that people often reject it and question why it's important. And it's always hard to articulate why it's important because (to me) the answer is obvious.

People will say "well, we're making a movie with sound. We have dialogue at our disposal. We can just use words to convey our meaning".

What I would answer is that whoever said "A picture is worth a thousand words" had it right.

The problem with words are that words can be cheap and disposable. We don't always pay them a lot of heed. When you're talking to people in your everyday life, do you always catch every single word they say? No, we're frequently distracted by our own thoughts and we don't catch 100% of what people say. The same is true of movies, and if the audience misses a bit of dialogue because the person behind them is coughing or opening a noisy bag of Skittles, you don't want them to be lost for the rest of the movie.

Also words aren't always the truth. When we listen to people talk in real life we run it through our filter, trying to figure out what is the underlying truth about the words they are sharing with us. We know that sometimes people lie to us, and sometimes they are telling the truth from their point of view but they may not know the whole story. There are a million reasons why their words may not be truthful - deliberately and otherwise - but the point is that we never take what people say as the absolute truth because we know it's not.

On the other hand, visuals don't lie. With a picture what you see is what you get.

Sometimes film makers will lie to us with their visuals, based on showing us a false image, or leaving out a key image that makes us interpret the ones before and after it differently, and then revealing the truth to us later with an additional image. And that's always more powerful than just finding out someone used false words with us.

We can remember an image that we saw with perfect clarity for the rest of our lives. But how often do we remember exactly what someone said?

So when I try to explain this concept to people I just say that a story that's told through images has a deep, visceral impact on the psyche of the people watching it because images operate on a much deeper level than words. Obviously, the best movies use both in concert to convey their story. But images are always, always, always more powerful and supercede what the dialogue is telling us.

The biggest reason why people seem to reject the wisdom of this concept is that - like most basic concepts - it's really hard to do. It requires discipline, knowledge and hard work to tell a story through images. And in my experience people will (ironically) go to great lengths to avoid having to use discipline, knowledge and hard work.

Usually if I've gotten this far in my explanation they're still not convinced. So maybe the words of author David Mamet will convince you, instead. From "Bambi vs. Godzilla", page 152:

"The perfect film is the silent film, just as the perfect sequence is the silent sequence. Dialogue is inferior to picture in telling a film story. A picture, first, as we know, is worth a thousand words; the juxtaposition of pictures is geometrically more effective. If a director or writer wants to find out if a scene works, he may remove the dialogue and see if he can still communicate the idea to the audience.

Ancient theological wisdom put it thus: 'Preach Christ constantly - use words if you must.'"


To be honest I'm not really a fan of Mamet's films, but he's written several great books on film and acting that I definitely recommend.

13 comments:

Will J said...

I agree! It's easy to forget about it because it works so well. And it's related to the silhouette principal in drawing, right? Remove all the details and you should still be able to understand the action.

Thanks for the post!

Mewzilla said...

Interesting post! I really find your way of thinking about the importance of images really true.

Im interested in knowing and learning about film and animation (thats why i try to constantly read your posts) But i desire to acquire a book on film ( technic, theory and practice)and you really seem to know about many good books and people that dedicate their life study on the subject. Im a little weak in that matter, cause im only focusing in learning animation and illustration ( in my daily work and hobby) But, if i desire to do something for myself like an animated short that in a future i could show. What Book or author can help me in the study of film language?
Thanks for the useful posts and notes you give 8D!

DmL said...

And yet books almost always affect me more lastingly and deeply. I'm interested to hear an actual argument about this, since I agree that films with little dialogue are usually more effective. Where does this antagonism between word and picture come from, since obviously both are quite powerful in their proper use. How do they work together at all? What does this mean for a medium like comics?

Jeremy Elder said...

I couldn't agree more. This is the reason the first 30 min of Wal-E rules. I hate to say it though, but some people are bored by a lack of dialogue even if the visuals are saying much more. Very sad.

Robert said...

I wonder how many silent films David Mamet has really seen? I'm pretty sure he hasn't made one.

I've watched a lot of silent movies and while I love the technique I can't say that their success ratio is any better than the sound films that followed. A lot of crap got made.

The need to avoid dialog created a tendency towards visually obvious melodrama. Visuals may not lie, but they have trouble telling subtle truth too. Try making a visual of sarcasm without beating it to death.

Most animals have a repertoire of visual postures and motions they communicate with but speech is a big part of what makes us human.

If we accept that picture are greater than words, how do we explain the power of radio theater which is imageless? Sometimes what we hear can be more striking than what we see.

Of course, a lot of radio theater was crap too.

joris said...

I agree with this, but I think the problem also exists on the other end of the spectrum, especially in short films (true, short films are only a small percentage compared to the full film market).

To me, it seems like a lot of these short film makers substitute "visual storytelling" for "characters shouldn't use verbal language to interact", making their world look like a parallel universe where language doesn't exist.

I think we can define two types of dialog. One where it's part of the acting, and functions on the same level as visual body language. In this case it's not important *what's* being said, but *how* it is said.
This is the type that often is missing for the sake of visual language, which I pity.

The other type of dialog would be where the flow of the story is explained through words, and it seems this is the type of dialog you're aiming at in your post. In this case it's true that one image is worth a thousand words.

andreas schuster said...

I thought Redbelt was pretty good,
of all the books he wrote,
which one would you say is a good starter?

thanks for posting as always!

Jennifer said...

I'm reminded of that 7 minute no-edit shot in Children of Men. No dialgoue, no cuts -- sublime filmmaking.

roxyryoko said...

I agree! I think perhaps comedy is probably most important to be visual in film, especially with translating and dubbing. Humor based in dialogue often falls flat when "translated." Puns are doomed in translation.

Rodney Baker said...

Thanks for that!

Having just read your post on the Three Magic Questions I have traveled back in time to this excellent post on the primacy of visuals.

Boy do I agree with your accessment of the importance of the visual over dialogue.

It seems dialogue is the characters means to navigate and negotiate through those three magic questions while living in the moment. Let's internalize those questions and a the character for a moment:

1. Put all the cash in the bag.
2. (Get) down on the floor and nobody'll get hurt.
3. Hurry up!

It seems to me that all dialogue is the external evidence of internal negotiation. We are trying (often unsuccessfully) to convey those three magic questions to one another without tipping our hand. The real world problem is we may not know what we want. Therefore we often falter in words and fail to successfully negotiate obstacles.

So... why am I timetraveling?

1. I want to understand more of what is going on here. (I should say... I want your job!)
2. I'll keep looking and learning until this particular conflict is resolved.
3. 'Seven Camels' is a great place to return to periodically. It's more candy than drug.

mark kennedy said...

Will - yep, good point, and thanks for taking the time to leave a comment!

Mewzilla - The best book I've read is "The Five C's of Cinematography" by (I think) Vascelli. It's simple and easy-to-read and covers the basics of cutting and staging well. The other book that's good is "Shot by Shot" but I find "Five C's" more accesible and has better illustrations that make it all clear. Hope that helps - write back if not!

DmL - I think it's just worth remembering that visuals supercede words in any kind of visual format (That goes for comics too I think). Again, if you think back to comics you read as a child, you probably remember images from them, but can you remember what words were used? Maybe some people can. I know for me the visual sticks with me longer. And obviously when words and pictures are used well together, then you have a really powerful result.

Jeremy - yes, it's true, and that's why some people like plays better I suppose.

Robert - I don't think that the point is that visuals are always better than words, or that leaving words out entirely is the key to making a good movie. To me, the post is about how you shouldn't try to convey your story with just words, especially if the words and images are at odds. The visuals should carry the story and I feel like the words should be used when they need to be used and not in excess of that. And both should work in concert to support each other.

Joris -mostly, more than anything, where I think words don't serve well is when they're trying to tell the story by themselves without support of the visuals. And then, if the visuals ARE telling the story, then how many words do you really NEED? You should use as many as you need to tell the story and put over the characters. Any more than that is unnecessary. To me.

Which is ironic considering how long-winded my posts can be...

Andreas - I like "On Directing Film", "Three USes of the Knife" and "True and False".

Jennifer - I haven't seen it, but I keep hearing it's great, I'll see it one of these days. Thanks for the comment!!!

Roxy - yes, good point, I hadn't even thought of that! Humor based on words rarely translates to other cultures.

Rodney - glad you liked the post, please tell me how to time travel, that way I would have time to write more posts...thanks for the comment!!!

DmL said...

Maybe I'm just terrible at reading comics, but I find I have to sort of force myself to look at the pictures. Same thing when watching subtitles. I know many people who do the same thing. Interesting quandry.

Christina Dunigan said...

Study some Buster Keaton and see how little dialog added.

In "The General", when Buster comes back from scoping out the Union camp, we don't need to hear what he's telling Annabelle to know what he's telling her.

In "The Cameraman", we don't need to hear a word of what Buster and Ed are saying; we get that it's two men bickering.

I don't think there was a single intertitle of dialogue between Buster and the twins in "The Play House" -- you didn't need it.

Buster's beef with talkies was that they threw in needless dialogue when bodies and faces told the stories just fine. That's why "Mooching Through Georgia", as cheesy as it is, turned out to be a much better movie than "Free and Easy." Since "Mooching" was a cheap throwaway, he and Clyde Bruckman went back to what they were good at -- letting Buster tell the story with his body and his very expressive far-from-stony face. (Which may be part of why I remember "Mooching Through Georgia" as a silent film though I know it wasn't.)