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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Film Theory: Image Systems and Symbolism

What is an image system? Well, that’s fancy film theory-speak for a repeating pattern of colors, symbols or images in a movie. Easiest example: THE SIXTH SENSE. For most Rouge Wavers, this is old hat, but play along for a moment, not all of us have gone over this – in TSS, M. Night Shyamalan used the color red to indicate the supernatural. If you watch the movie again, aware of red as an image system, you will notice the color red – a balloon, a sweater, the tent, etc. – in every scene in which there is a supernatural event.

Another example of an image system used in a mainstream movie (for art house movies are usually chock-a-block, mainstream blockbusters less so) is WHAT LIES BENEATH. In WLB, water is the recurring image and theme throughout the movie. The lake, the girl drowning, the rain, the bathroom, the steam, the overflowing bathtub… Again and again, water surrounds us in the movie.

How important is film theory for a screenwriter? The Wave-inatrix is of two minds about it: I have good friends with degrees in film who can speak knowledgeably about Eisenstein's methods of montage or the genesis of the French New Wave but who have not written a great script. On the other hand, it always strikes me as a bit arrogant for writers to seek a well paid career in screenwriting but not find opportunities to learn about as many aspects of the history and theory of film as they can. Many community colleges offer great classes on film theory. You'll see tons of amazing movies and learn a bunch, I promise.

But back to image systems - for you as a writer, creating and integrating an image system into your script can be a great way to subtly add a thematic layer to your script. Warning: take it easy now, don’t be obvious or overdo. Are there a lot of scenes that take place in front of car headlights? At sunset? With water or fire present? How about smoke or even predominant colors…white living room, snowy exterior, white leather seats in the car – are you trying to denote sterility or coldness?

Image system should not be at the top of your list if you are a newer screenwriter. At that level, it is a nicety. But as you progress and grow more experienced and adept with the craft, image systems definitely add a layer of sophistication and mood.

Start by watching a few movies and look for an image system. Can you find one? Remember, it can be color, it can be seasons or elements or an object like fish or glass or mirrors. But it will be throughout the movie, subtly and in the background. Here are few movies to watch that should make this assignment easy and fun:

The Battleship Potemkin
Citizen Kane
North by Northwest

*extra points for Gilliam's brilliant homage to many famous images and moments in the movies that inspired him.

For more fun learning about film theory, click here or here

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Christian M. Howell said...

Julie with the big post. This is just another of the things that "most" new writers think nothing of.
Every script I write has some kind of symbolic imagery.

My favorite one uses mirrors and cellphones. Can you guess who the protag is?

You're right though that it's not something you can "try" to do at first - unless you're a psycho who reads too much.

Also, the use of weather in "Dead Poets" shows the passage of time and the changes that come with seasons.

There just aren't a lot of writers thinking about being thought-provoking. It's mostly just who can be more obnoxious or more exploitative of women.
The soft smile of a woman bathed in candlelight is much better than tits in any light.

Tavis said...

Even Donald Kaufman agrees:

"Right now I'm working out an Image System. Bob calls it an invaluable asset. Because of my multiple personality theme, I've chosen the motif of broken mirrors to show my protagonist's fragmented self. Bob teaches that an Image System greatly increases the complexity of an aesthetic emotion."

It's funny because it's true.