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  1. #1
    Jack Klaw

    Pictures. Words. Ideas

    After the army, I started my professional career as a cub copywriter. I guess it is only natural that, when I was presenting a new idea, I mumbled and grumbled over the words first...even if I had an image in mind. As the years went by, I gradually came to realize the validity of people who thought visually, and I began to try to emulate them as part of my own creative process. Even after I became a film director, in some strange way I thought all 'real creative people' used words to some degree the way I did.

    I was at Disney and we were working on a picture called The Watcher in the Woods, an attempt to do a scary picture with a somewhat confused script adapted from a terrific YA novel by Florence Engel Randall. As had happened several times before at the studio while I was there, the studio had nearly completed production (what is known as principle photography) when they realized they didn't have an ending.

    At that time my title was Creative Director of Motion Picture & Broadcast Something, Something, Something, I can't even remember...but the operating notion is that the longer your title the narrower and more restricted your ability to get things done. When a picture got in trouble like this, my boss, the head of Publicity, would ask us--the writer/producers, the PR people, internal writers, flacks, petty bosses (like me), etc.-- to come up with ideas to help out the production team, and we would do so in spite of the fact that the head of production resented it and we would uniformly get our heads kicked in for daring to presume...

    Anyway, Tom Leech, the producer of Watcher in the Woods, didn't seem to be a really bad guy, and so in short order we were all churning out ideas, dreams of sugar plums and screen credits dancing in our heads.

    The meeting, while not the most disastrous I'd ever sunk on, started on a mean level and sagged towards nasty. Tom was frustrated and angry. Not in what I'd call a listening mood.

    I had my own ideas about what was wrong with Watcher, and so when my turn came I passed around a few pages outlining how I thought we could 'fix' the picture. The first thing I saw was that when the alien creature appeared, he was a glowing, snot-green colored mass of something. In the book, the creature is a 'good' though enormously powerful (and inadvertently dangerous) being who is simply trapped in some sort of space-time locker (in an old tree) and can't get out. Tom and his assistants nodded and looked out the window while I suggested blue might be more appropriate. I went on, explaining the script didn't really get the book, and their interpretation was just a cheap horror shot (I was more polite than I'm saying, here.) and if they wanted the movie to make sense they had to get a little closer to the book which was as much sci-fi as it was horror. There were yawns and one instance of covert nose-picking.

    Clearly having made no impact, I settled in my seat as Harrison Ellinshaw, jr. rose to address the meeting. Harrison was the quasi-famous art director son of a famous art director dad. I think Tom had invited him as sort-of a secret weapon, his antidote for meddling publicity people who thought they could do films. Harrison nodded to the two assistant producers and they turned around two huge cork boards that were resting against a back wall. On these were mounted a series of scenes.

    Harrison had done everything exactly opposite from what I personally believe was the way to go. He had an even more violent yellow-green to his snot-spray monster, and also had it appear in a glowing chartreuse lobster-like manifestation, like some radioactive crawler from the deep floating mysteriously in the air.

    But Tom and his boys had perked up. I could see their eyes were glowing as Harrison blathered on about how big and scary things were going to be. Perhaps there was hope for this picture after all. Perhaps they wouldn't have to refi their homes, perhaps they wouldn't be laughed out of town.

    Truth is, Harrison wasn't a very talented artist, but his wild scribbles didn't have to be good art--they were conveying action. There wasn't a word of dialogue or description in his entire presentation, BUT HE WAS TALKING THEIR LANGUAGE.

    I think that experience finally converted me. For the first time I realized that there were clients in the world who actually could not visualize from the written word. A good learning experience for me...but not so good for the studio.

    Convinced they had the picture back on the right track and that this was a true horror picture, the scariest that Walt Disney Studios had ever done, they decided to open the picture in New York City, a very tough movie-going crowd that had not been very kind to our pictures in the past. Distribution had us do huge ads warning "Too Scary To Bring The Family--Better Leave The Little Kids at Home."

    New York City took us at our word...Watcher opened on a Friday night and only a handful of people attended. Unfortunately, one of them was Vincent Canby, the notorious, sharp-tongued film critic who wrote, "...with a crustacean-like monster looking like a refugee from a Chinese New Years parade..."

  2. #2
    Jack Klaw

    Re: Pictures. Words. Ideas

    P.S. Most agents and editors to whom you will be pitching are word-people.

  3. #3

    Re: Pictures. Words. Ideas

    Interesting story!

    With your film background, do you find yourself visualizing camera angles, etc. as you write? I deal with TV and find myself thinking both in terms of words and pictures.

  4. #4
    Steven Marr

    Re: Pictures. Words. Ideas

    The discussion is interesting, one I have spent some time studying. The neurobiological understanding to explain the link between mental imagery and verbalization in not developed yet but there are some insightful studies in this direction.It falls into the region of "metaphor" in cognitive science studies. There is quite a bit published on the web and can be accessed by typing keyword, "metaphor."

    Recently I developed an exercise in writing to use mental imagery and metaphor to create tone. I will post it here.

    An image came to mind. A man, stooped, carrying a huge hourglass on his back. It was lit in the stark light of a Caravaggio, not his usual frame of reference. A phrase came to mind with the image, “The times weigh heavily.” He heaved a deep sigh and looked out towards the horizon, a gray sky occluded the horizon. It felt as if rain might fall. There was a feeling in the air, a certain sense of imminent deluge.


    Responses have been variable. Some found the link beteen imagery and phrasing confusing.I agree with you that not all people use visualisation when reading.It would be interesting to do a study examining this.


  5. #5

    Re: Pictures. Words. Ideas

    Word people, yes, but primarily idea people. Words without any of the warp and woof of life and humanity behind them, without the breath of ideas, are just words, lifeless on their own. Words are tools for writers, part of the journey, not the destination.

  6. #6
    Bob Kellogg

    Re: Pictures. Words. Ideas

    Another stimulating discussion. Thanks, Jack.

    It gets even more complicated. Not only can some people not visualize well from written words, some must see words written and can't visualize from spoken words.

    My wife is one of those. A brilliant person with a brilliant career as an educator, she understands that spoken language doesn't stick well. If it's important to remember, she must see it written. People like that develop a note-taking habit early. I never needed it in the past. Now that my brain is decaying, I wish I'd been a note-taker.

    Memory is the second thing to go. I forget what's first.

    Interior designers are well acquainted with the fact that most people have trouble visualizing anything that doesn't already exist. They need to see it, and not just a floor plan. That's why sophisticated 3D software has been such a boon. People can see the new design on the computer.

    So here's the situation:

    * People have a hard time visualizing things from our words.
    * Words mean different things to different people.
    * The same words may affect a person differently on one occasion than another.
    * That means precise communication is, at the least, unlikely.
    * If we're writing fiction, it's okay. If we're doing non-fiction, it's hopeless.

    Whoops. I just worked myself around to a position that says non-fiction is harder than fiction. Maybe that's why I write fiction.

    Bob K.

  7. #7

    Re: Pictures. Words. Ideas

    Great topic- informative discussion. This type of discourse is what puts Writers Net a cut above so many others. What's best is the fact that discussions that disintegrate into hissy fits can be aborted with a switch to some other topic. - ike

  8. #8
    linton lewis

    Re: Pictures. Words. Ideas

    Steve, I had to look up your word occlude on my handy atomica and I can't see where it fits in that sentence.

  9. #9
    Glen T. Brock

    Re: Pictures. Words. Ideas


    How do people, more specifically writers, think? How do we conceptualise? What does it take to get from mind to paper?

    In my case, I visualise completely. My novels are movies in my mind and I seldom edit what I see. I admit my technique is not shared by everyone. I cannot say that it is even a correct way of writing. It's what I do. How do you write? How about everybody else? Comments?

    Glen T. Brock

  10. #10
    Jack Klaw

    Re: Pictures. Words. Ideas

    I used to write screenplays entirely that way. But directors don't like it, and it annoys producers as well. So these days when I do a 1st draft screenplay, I don't think of how they are going to capture the moment on the screen. I don't use scene numbers, much less call out a camera move even if its obvious. I try to write the screenplay as if it were a novel in a different format.

    It's more of a challenge for the writer to write that way, but I think it makes the script more interesting on the first read, and that's what you need because producers and directors are overloaded with scripts in the same way as literary agents and editors. As the writer you can put in more flavor, tone and intensity if you're not always thinking like a director. A good way to look at it: Your first draft screenplay is a selling document. You're telling the story to hook the people who are going to make the movie.

    For instance, here's how I started a first draft for HEART OF DESIRE, a screenplay I recently adapted from my unpublished novel of the same name:

    A huge sports fishing boat, the Pacific Queen, putters gracefully past a faded sign perched on the rocks announcing "Cabo San Lucas." The boat is returning from a week at sea in search of giant 'freight train' blue fin tuna.

    The scraggly-bearded YOUNG MATE behind the wheel is tired and bored. He spots a colorfully attired EXTREMIST KAYAKER paddling in the water near the barnacle-encrusted rocks of Land's End.

    But the final draft screenplay, written by a million dollar writer working with the director, may look something like this:

    Dark, cold blue-gray water, the first unsettling touches of dusk.
    Huge and somehow oddly menacing, the boat hugs the jutting rocks near the harbor
    1b. ANGLES ON
    The prow, slicing through the water
    Water bubbling away from the bow and towards the distant horizon.
    PAN the faded sign perched on the rocks, "Cabo San Lucas."
    STEADY ON THE FADED SIGN the Pacific Queen, huge in the FG, wipes the shot
    Weary crew and fishermen, tanned and tired, goofing off or sleeping through these last dregs of their trip

    2a. Angles on scraggly-bearded YOUNG MATE behind the wheel. He sighes, scratches one armpit.
    2b. His CHUM sits nearby, idly fooling with the fishfinder.
    2c. The YOUNG MATE looks up, idly amused.

    The colorfully attired EXTREMIST KAYAKER is paddling in the water near the barnacle-encrusted rocks of Land's End.
    3a. CLOSE ON KAYAKER He has big black earphones on his head and a dreamy look on his face.

    LONG LENS. The tiny Kayak bobs and looks like it might be in the way. If not, it is very close.

    The screenplay will have blown itself out from 118 pages to something over 250. It has gone from being a selling document to a working document, the directors blueprint of what he wants to do. It will have notations of value to the director, so he remembers the various articulations of his vision in the heat of battle, that is, while burning money on the set. The way it has been enriched may include actual suggestions for blocking the actors as well as camera moves...how the scenes will actually play.


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