The old saying goes: “Every picture tells a story,” and how true that is. LIFE magazine used to put out special edition books featuring nothing but humorous pictures of people, kids, and animals all doing something clever or cute. Caught or staged, these photos made us go “Ha-ha” or go “Awwwww.” Why? Because the picture told a story.
For example: A dog steals a lick of ice cream from an unsuspecting toddler. Instant comedy. But there’s also drama – will the dog get his butt whacked when Mom finds out? And character! – This playful dog is doing something naughty where another dog would be more obedient… or vicious. A split second image. 1/60th of a second captured on silver nitrate film. And yet all that comedy and drama and character revealed.
Let me jump to another image (and I wish I’d had my camera when I saw it). Last week I was tootling down a California highway when I spotted “a picture.” I only have a moment to take it all in, cuz I was doin’ 65 – so it’s like taking a snapshot in my brain. In the far left lane is a splash of white paint (now dry) connected to a long trail of white that crosses the road and explodes against the tall barrier wall on the right. This is followed by a few “bounce” splashes, as the paint can obviously hopped a bit after ricocheting off the wall. Then a calm white puddle on the shoulder as the last of the paint obviously dripped out of the can.
Now remember, all I saw were several blotches and a long trail of white. The story of the paint can (now long gone) falling off a truck, popping open, skittering across several lanes of traffic, then colliding with a far wall and coming to rest… that was all in my head. I didn’t see the accident, but the evidence of it (the “picture” of it) told me the story. And what a funny, splashy, visual story it was! Wham! Skid! Blam! Glug-glug-glug.
I image you can see the story in your head, as well. So let me ask you. Would the story be as effective if the paint can was only pint-sized instead of a gallon? How about if the paint was pavement-gray instead of dazzling white? What if it only crossed one lane of highway instead of four? How about if the can never hit the wall, but just rolled to a stop and quietly dribbled out its remaining contents? The answer is simple – the story would not be as funny or splashy or visual.
Which brings me to the message of the day. CONTRAST! If you want your story to be big and exciting and splashy, then don’t water it down with half-assed ideas. I’ll give you a prime example. Years ago I was working on a TV cartoon series in which a boy wants to build a half-pipe skateboard ramp. But this is no ordinary kid – this is a dreamer! And a doer! So he builds one fifty-feet tall. Naturally, when the boy’s father catches his son about to test the creation, he instantly halts the insanity. It’s too dangerous! The kid is disappointed, especially when his dad demands that HE test the ramp before allowing the boy to play on it. So Dad (with no skateboard experience) drops off this six-story contraption, building speed as he plummets, and finally rockets up the other side, launching himself practically into orbit! Big, splashy fun! And all because the kid built a 50 foot ramp.
So when I get hold of the storyboard of my script, I discover that the artist has drawn a 5 foot skateboard ramp. Huh? That ain’t dangerous. Heck, that kills my story beat about the father needing to intervene. And even if Dad does, there’s not enough height to launch him comically into the stratosphere. Not big. Not splashy. Not fun. (By the way, this is an isolated event. Most storyboard artists will plus a story – not diminish it.)
Now imagine if I hadn’t caught this error. The finished episode would have reached the television airwaves with a 5-foot ramp. And the audience would have scratched its collective head and asked, “What’s wrong with this writer?!” *sigh*
If a split-second image like an ice-cream-licking dog or a bouncing paint bucket can tell an amusing story, how much story can a static shot of a skateboard ramp tell? Volumes! If it’s 50-feet tall, we learn about the boy: he’s energetic, he thinks big, he’s daring (and a little stupid). We also learn about the father: he’s protective, he’s brave, (and a little stupid). We can also mentally project what’s going to happen with giggling delight; we don’t even need to see someone go down the ramp to know what the outcome will be. All of that we learn from looking at a “picture” of a 50-foot skateboard ramp. Believe me, we don’t learn one-tenth that from a 5-foot ramp.
In concussion, er, conclusion, think about the pictures you are creating when you write a scene. Even one frame of film (1/24th of a second) can affect the viewer . (Remember the single frame Skull pictures that William Friedkin inserted into “The Exorcist” giving us a subliminal feeling of dread?)
Pictures do tell a story. A luscious view of Paris sets a romantic mood. A brief touch of hands reveals emotion. Scorpions overwhelmed by ants presage the violent finale of The Wild Bunch. Jangling keys on a belt demonstrates a serious “all business” official in E.T. An exasperated eye roll makes a comment stronger than words. So pick your pictures well. If you choose a picture that speaks volumes, you may save yourself having to write volumes.