Friday, February 19, 2010

Thinking Visually

One of the qualities that separates a screenwriter from other kinds of writers is that the screenwriter MUST be able to think visually.

I give my screenwriting students an assignment to write a treatment for a 1 minute silent film, (silent meaning no dialogue, but sync sounds are okay.) The point of the assignment is to get them to try and tell a story strictly in moving pictures. I think as we continue into a post-cinematic world, which is net-based, text-based, rather than visual, this quality will be harder to develop. I know that very few of my screenwriting students intuitively try and tell stories in pictures. It's an impulse they have to learn, whereas 30 years on into screenwriting, I have trouble NOT thinking in pictures. That's why I doubt I'll ever have the cojones to write prose. Writing posts for this blog is hard enough.

But thinking in pictures is fun.

Yesterday, one of my students complained that he couldn't figure out how to visually show someone at work being harassed by his boss or that his girlfriend was calling. In his treatment, he'd had both the boss and the girlfriend use the phone to call the harried worker character and then tried to be visual by showing their names on the phone's call display. He ran into real trouble when the worker answered the phone, because he couldn't even say hello and fulfill the requirements of my assignment.

Why not try to SHOW the girlfriend show up and plant a kiss on her boyfriend? The moving picture tells us who the characters are and what their relationship is. Or why a character carrying a stack of files doesn't dump them on the worker's desk and glare at him before walking away. We'd instantly know this was the worker's boss and what was at stake.

A lightbulb seemed to go off for the student when I suggested this. Using technology to reveal information - his use of the telephone and the call display - was where his visual head was at instead of trying to actually communicate visually. For screenwriters it's a must. You should be able to turn off the sound of a film and still know what's going on, because the roots of cinema are in the silent film and the mural. But if you turn off the picture and just listen to the sound of a movie, it might not be so easy to figure it out.

An interesting caveat to this is television. The roots of TV are in radio. Consequently, it's interesting to think of TV as radio with pictures. Turn the picture off and listen to TV and you'll often understand what's happening. Turn the sound off and just watch the picture and it's harder. But the best TV is still cinematic as far as I'm concerned.

Seeing how unintuitive thinking visually is for my screenwriting students makes me wonder if this impulse separates the generations.

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