Action Over Words
Some films, such as comedies, are usually reliant on word play and humorous conversations in order to be successful.
However, most other films are the exact opposite. Words are far less important than image, than action and mood in films such as dramas or action films or thrillers or suspense. In those cases, talking too much is absolutely the wrong thing to do.
Turning words into imagery is an area with which many Christian film makers struggle.
Film is cinema, moving images, yet there a lot of Christian films that spend more time talking about faith or moral challenges than they do showing it.
A simple example of imagery over words is the use of the girl in the red dress in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. One could use 30 script pages telling the audience about the loss of innocence, the depravity of the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews, concentration camps and the repulsion of war.
The girl in the red dress.
Or, you can sum it all up in a single image of the girl in the red dress, in a black and white film, wandering among the mayhem amidst German soldiers, perhaps unaware of the events unfolding around her.
Later, when you see that small body in the red dress, now lifeless, flung onto a cart before being dumped into a fire, you realize that even she could not escape it. That single image spoke more than words could ever speak.
We, as filmmakers, have to try and use imagery over words whenever possible.
Christian filmmakers, however, struggle with that approach because the Gospel message is most familiar to them as text in the Bible. As words spoken by preachers. Even though Jesus was exceptionally adept at using parables, stories to illuminate messages, we often struggle taking his words and illuminating them in images.
The end result is that, often times, the momentum of a Christian film will screech to a halt so an appropriate Gospel passage may be quoted or read. If it were not the Gospel of Jesus, filmmakers would not allow such a thing to occur in their script. Why? Because it’s bad cinema. So, we must do our best to overcome that and layer in that message in visual information and plot.
Instead of telling us how the father saved his child, but died in a hunting accident, show us how the father died in a hunting accident. If your great grandmother was abducted by aliens, show us, don’t tell us. When in doubt, always show the action.
Another challenge facing Christian film makers trying to turn words into imagery is that it takes three resources that are often in short supply… time, effort and money.
John Snell and Brian Shea in Club God.
In our short film Club God, we were able to shoot 14 pages of dialogue in four hours. Why? Because the film is about a comedian trying to help God with his comedy act. It’s a conversation and, for the intent of the short, such a dynamic worked.
However, if I were to try and remake that short into a visual piece, it would take three weeks, 10 locations and five more actors just to make it work. Visual cinema is hard work. It takes thought and patience and creativity and perseverance. That all equates to time, effort and money.
Some genres necessitate striking visuals over dialogue (action and horror, for example). If you’re playing in that genre, then you’ll have to shoot cinematic films. If you can’t, then perhaps you should pick another genre and another story. After all, the goal is to make a successful film, to reach the audience, to keep them engaged.
Another thing we’ve noticed from a lot of films is that information is unnecessarily repeated to the detriment of the pace of the film. For example, if my character is going for a big job interview and he tells his friend in the first scene, don’t have him repeat all of the information in a later scene with his girlfriend and again later when the character talks to his mother.
Once the audience knows the information, they know it. It’s your job to write a script that doesn’t required repeating the information. If you have to repeat information because other characters are unaware of it, the audience has to wait for the characters in the film to catch up. That’s never a good idea.
Instead of repeating the information to the girlfriend, have her already know from the nosy best friend who’s dating the main character’s buddy. Instead of repeating the same information to the mother, have her assume the interview already happened because she always forgets what day it is… do anything other than repeat information. Not only does it lack imagery, it’s downright boring.
Watch Without Words
A long time ago I used to make films on silent Super 8 film. It was a real challenge because you had to speak visually. I was inspired by the films at the latter part of the silent era, where filmmakers such as Cecil B. DeMille, Charlie Chaplain and D.W. Griffith told both funny and complex stories without uttering a single word.
When I first delved into the realm of microcinema I decided to again challenge myself by making a film without words called Justice. It was a film about stolen secrets, $250,000 in cash, a resume and a pipe-bomb that fill four briefcases of four people. In a single day, their lives intertwine and their fates are decided by justice.
Tim Osterhout in Justice.
The half-hour award-winning film was difficult to write. It’s amazing how much we rely on words to relay our thoughts.
When filming Citizen Kane Orson Wells came to learn of the power of imagery. Having come from the theater, he wrote the script with a lot of monologues for the main characters to say. While filming, however, he realized those words were unnecessary if you relay the information with the right camera angle, the right lighting, the right movement. He ended up cutting out all of the monologues because the images he was creating with the camera made the words redundant.
When you put your director’s cap on, look at each page and ask “how can I express this visually?” This may be harder if you’re also the writer of the script, but a good reading experience does not equate to a good visual experience. Different mediums require different approaches and different outcomes.
Here’s the test… if you can watch a film without sound and get engaged, understand it and follow it, it’s a successful visual film. If you are lost because it’s only some talking heads with no visual hint as to who is good and who is bad, whether what they are saying is positive or negative, whether one person is their sister or wife or lover, then you know the film is not using imagery.
Take those words and mold them into a wonderful visual message that will haunt your audience for years to come. It’s what makes cinema so powerful and so special.
Let us use this wonderful tool to the best of our ability to praise the Lord with visual stories that will touch souls and change lives.
Next time… Good, Evil, Precious and Crying.