Edward Hopper – Nighthawks (1942)
Before the beginning of sound pictures, images did the heavy lifting in telling film stories. Sound brought elements like music and dialogue into the story telling mix. However, the marriage of image and sound in film has seldom created a happy union. More often than not the result has been a strained marriage with both sensory elements fighting for dominance in the telling of the story.
In effect, much of film history can be viewed as a battle between sound and image. In some films, image comes out the obvious winner. In others, sound prevails. For example, consider the 1966 film Blow-Up by the Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni where dialogue is sparse and images prevail. Or, the 2014 film Under The Skin by director Jonathan Glazer. Both very different films yet similar in their mutual reliance on images rather than dialogue to tell the story. On the other extreme, consider the 1981 film My Dinner With Andre composed of dialogue between two people.
However, it would be wrong to suggest that films today lack images. Like the image-saturated culture they arise from, today’s films are full of images. In fact usually over-full of images. Yet in the vast majority of films, their images don’t go anywhere. They simply come and go through the course of a film like pop-up things in a carnival fun-house ride. Modern technology and special effects make them awesome and pretty but give them no life of their own. Like beautiful butterflies pinned to a collection board, they are pretty but also pretty dead.
The result is that many films, unsure of their central image, unwilling to invoke the power of the single image, bombard viewers with too many images. The shotgun effect of images in modern films create what media theorist Marshall McLuhan might term “hot” images allowing for little participation by the audience. This onslaught of images are “broadcast” 24/7 through modern films like continuous images from cable news networks.
Films need to cut the machine-gun spray of small, lifeless images and focus on creating a few images full of life. They need to call back what McLuhan would term “cool” images, or images that are incomplete, requiring in depth participation by viewers in decoding their message. They need to create images that suggest rather than define, that expand meaning rather than deflate it.
* * *
The importance of focusing on a few key “cool” images in films is underscored by one of today’s most popular and influential screenwriting franchises based around Blake Snyder’s famous fifteen-step screenplay structure outlined in his Save the Cat! book. Importantly, images serve as bookends for the Snyder structure with step one of his structure consisting of an Opening Image and step fifteen a Final Image.
Snyder’s bookend images are far more than just the beginning and ending of a long stream of images fired at the reader through a film. Rather, as McLuhan might suggest, they are meant to be “cool” images, allowing for participation by the audience. As Snyder observes, a film’s Opening Image provides “The very first impression of what a movie is – its tone, its mood, the type and scope of the film.” This Opening Image is a visual representation of the struggle & tone of the story. A snapshot of the main character’s problem, before the adventure begins. As Snyder notes, it provides an “opportunity to give us the starting point of the hero” by seeing a “before” snapshot of the hero we are about to follow on an adventure.
He provides a few examples of great Opening Images: the reckless motorcycle ride through the English countryside in Lawrence of Arabia; the gated, looming castle of Citizen Kane; the Opening Image of Raiders of the Lost Arc. As Snyder describes it, “The Paramount Pictures logo fades and is replaced by a mountain in South America. This is where we meet our intrepid archaeologist. As the explorers move through the dense jungle, we only catch a glimpse of his silhouette, framed by a fedora and a whip at his side. But once he steps out of the shadows and uses that whip to knock a gun out of a guide’s hand, we understand that he is no ordinary hero. And by the end of the story, he will face obstacles like no one has faced before.”
The other image bookend in a film is the Final Image, the last step in Snyder’s fifteen-step structure. It provides the opposite effect of the Opening Image, allowing the audience to see what has changed. As he notes, “The opening and final images should be opposites, a plus and a minus, showing change so dramatic it documents the emotional upheaval that the movie represents.” He observes that this Final Image is a screenwriter’s “proof that change has occurred and that it’s real.”
* * *
The importance of images is recognized in other leading screenwriting guides such as Jennifer van Sijll in her Cinematic Storytelling, Bruce Block in The Visual Story and Bill Boyle in The Visual Mindscape of the Screenplay. Their books are part of what one might term the Visual School of screenwriting harkening back to the visual concerns of early film theorists like Sergei Eisenstein.
While the Visual School of screenwriter offer important lessons to be learned, important lessons come from other media outside film. Perhaps the key media for filmmakers to learn about image comes from a relatively small niche area of modern photography called “staged” photography where photographic scenes are set-up with the photographer playing much the same role as a film director.
This form of photography captures artificially constructed scenes made only for the purpose of the photograph. The technique became well known in the 1980s through the work of photographers like Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman. Yet, this photographic art form is not altogether new and has been created since the early days of photography in the work of 19th-century photographers such as Oscar Gustav Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson who staged classical or biblical scenes with actors. Later, in the 1920s and 1930s, there were the staged portraits of Marcel Duchamp and Claude Cahun.
* * *
Edward Hopper was one of the most famous American painters who told stories with his paintings such as his well-known “Nighthawks.” The leading contemporary exponent of Hopper’s story-telling paintings is the type of photography known as staged photography. The leading exponent of staged photography is Gregory Crewdson who teaches at the Yale School of Art.
It is ironic that filmmakers can learn more about the power of images from a photographer rather than other filmmakers. But Crewdson is perhaps really more similar to a film director than a photographer. As JPG Magazine notes, “Crewdson shoots his still images as if he were Michelangelo Antonioni channeling Edward Hopper on a movie set.” Shooting with a Hasselblad Sinar 8×10 camera, his field of composition includes people, sky, cars, streets and buildings. In essence, the scale of his compositions matches the possibilities inherent in the 8×10 camera format.
Similar to a film director, he has a lighting operator that sets things up before each shoot. Crewdson’s multi-purpose lighting director’s name is Rico Sands and Rico’s background includes being a gaffer, crane operator, and director of photography and collaborator on the lighting setup of Crewdson’s shots. Rico controls the lighting on the set right down to calling out which circuit breaker to kill when shooting individual shots.
The final image of Crewdson is a composite from a series of shots slightly modified between takes. It’s similar to how French photographer Gustave Le Gray (1820–1884) composited his seascapes at the beginning of the 20th Century. The photographic materials at the time made it difficult to shoot both the sky and water, so Le Gray shot them individually and composited them in the darkroom.
The cinematic staging of Crewdson’s brilliant, evocative scenes qualify as examples of Snyder’s Opening Images. But more than Opening Images, they are also “open images” possessing a McLuhanesque “coolness” favoring evocation over definition, participation over observation, openness over closure. The staged scenes are enigmatic and often paradoxical, containing a number of subtexts. Items are mixed together that might not normally go together. Strategically placed lighting emphasizes certain parts of the scene.
Landscape With The Fall of Icarus – Pieter Bruegel (1560s)
People in the photos are up to unusual activities with hidden, secretive purposes. Crewdson’s characters, like the people in Bruegel’s famous Landscape With The Fall of Icarus, go about their activities often oblivious to strange things happening in other parts of the scene or distractedly looking off into space. In Crewdson’s “Untitled” a woman sits in a garden inside her home and stares off into space. In “Sunday Roast” a father apparently gives some type of benediction to a son who stares up at the father’s raised hand while another son sits at the table looking down, not noticing the scene behind him.
Gregory Crewdson – Untitled
* * *
Again, one of the major problems with films today is not the abandonment of images but rather the abandonment of attempts to understand images and dynamics associated with them. The result is a profusion of images in films aimed randomly at the audience in hopes some might connect. Like information today, more and more images of less and less importance. Like symbols, more and more symbols relating to smaller and smaller things. Far easier to create a flood of images (or symbols) to tell a story than select a few images that establish an emotional mood and atmosphere for the telling of the story. In the rush to shoehorn images into films, the importance of Snyder’s bookend Opening and Final Images are too often forgotten.
In the end, it’s ironic that a medium that throws out 24 images each second of film, approximately 173,000 images in the course of a two hour film, has much to learn from a medium that produces just one image at a time. The mass of images going nowhere in films today makes them full of Faulkner’s “sound and fury” ultimately “signifying nothing.” As Shakespeare writes in Macbeth’s famous soliloquy:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
The sound and fury of mindless images in films today. In the end, signifying nothing. Or, at least signifying much less than a single painting by Hopper or Bruegel. Or a photo by Gregory Crewdson.