Monday, 30 June 2008

High Concept Visuals

As Bill Martell keeps mentioning my idea for what I called high concept visuals, I thought it might be of some use to post a bit about them. This was written with an audience of me in mind, as I was trying to figure it out for my own use, so if it's a little rough around the edges, that's why.

High Concept Visuals

As in High Concept ideas (HCIs), the notion of the High Concept Visual (HCV) is a visual idea that can be easily described, which will suggest in the reader’s mind a movie that must be seen.

HCVs include Bullet Time in THE MATRIX, the moonlight skeletonisation of the pirates in PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and the time travel effects of the recent adaptation of THE TIME MACHINE.

Alone an HCV does not guarantee a good film. What it should guarantee are cinematic sequences in that film that haven’t been seen before.

As with HCIs, the HCV can be an amalgamation of previous visual systems and perhaps may be created by combining two visual systems that the audience is familiar with into a different form. THE TIME MACHINE uses time lapse photography as a basis for its HCV, but also adds a reverse zoom effect, which is seen with the sequence that starts on Earth in the past and ends up on the moon colony in the future.

The reverse zoom effect is also used in Men In Black as the end, starting with the Earth, moving out into the galaxy and then ending up with galaxy as a marble in an alien child’s hand. Although a very interesting visual, it is not an HCV, as the point of view is straight forward and consistent, even if the end is unexpected.

HCVs are not about using special effects to create something more realistically than has been done before, such as the dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK, they are about creating written scenes that dictate a visual style that is not reliant on an effects breakthrough to provide novelty. Judging from the script alone, the dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK could have conceivably been created using stop motion, animatronics, or animation had CGI effects not been used.

An HCV is not just about using a special effect in a different way either. The effect must be essential to the story and the characters or the environment. Trick photography (the bomb’s POV in PEARL HARBOR, the slow motion explosion in SWORDFISH) can make a shot more interesting, but if it is a staging decision rather than a story decision, it is not an HCV.

HCVs relate to several different concepts. Often an HCV includes several of these:

PERCEPTION provides a visual representation of the characters’ senses, or their thoughts.

In THE MATRIX the audience sees how Neo (Keanu Reeves) perceives the world of The Matrix, where the slow motion of bullet time isn’t just used for effect, but as Neo’s real-time perception of the world. The concept is expanded upon further when Neo’s abilities grow so that he can actually see the code of the Matrix when he’s inside.

In THE FISHER KING, the fantasy sequences show the audience what the world looks like through the eyes of Henry Sagan/Parry (Robin Williams) and provides insight into his delusions.

CSI provides a visual realisation of the character’s thoughts as they describe the possible results of their evidence, from reconstructions of how the crime might have happened, to illustrations of the physical effects of body trauma, such as a gunshot, from inside the body.

A BEAUTIFUL MIND uses a similar concept to the FISHER KING and CSI, where the thoughts of John Nash (Russell Crowe) are first shown to the audience as he works out various problems. This visualisation of his thought processes also throws out a subtle clue to his schizophrenic delusions, which are also shown on screen.

Other examples include GHOST and THE DEAD ZONE.

TRANSFORMATION can occur both to characters or to the environment. In some films, such as FREQUENCY, where transformations resulting from changes to the past create changes to both the characters and the environment, it happens to both.

Transformation itself is not enough to be considered an HCV, so there must be at least one other element at play. The Transformation in an action film, for example, usually has some effect on the outcome of the climax, often increasing the danger the protagonist is place in either from his own ill-timed transformations (VAN HELSING where Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) keeps reverting from werewolf to human in his fight with Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) whenever the full moon is obscured), or through the untimely transformations of the antagonist(s).

In some cases transformation will be tied into the defeat of the antagonist (the defeat of Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon) in HOLLOW MAN once he has become partially visible).

Other examples include THE MASK and COOL WORLD.

Environmental transformation can be used to indicate a change caused by time or travel (THE TIME MACHINE), an unearthly environment (Heaven as a painting of an Earthly location in WHAT DREAMS MAY COME), or a manipulation of the environment (such as the water powers of the aliens in THE ABYSS).

JUXTAPOSITION creates unusual combinations of visual elements, either by directly linking them by placing them on the same screen (such as the black and white/colour mix of PLEASANTVILLE), or though intercutting between two different views of the same event, such as the inside-the-body, outside-the-body action sequences of INNERSPACE.