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.

3 comments:

Morgan McKinnon said...

"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."


Great info Iain.

I'm working on an idea where a poverty-stricken country family, is jettisoned into the world of the powerfully rich...and one of the families, changes the other.

High Concept Visual?

Iain Gibson said...

By itself - no. In fact the first thing it suggests to me is the Beverly Hill Billies! The High Concept Visual is a cinematic reference - it's the visuals you see in the trailer that make you want to see the film - and more importantly (at least to making a sale) it has to be something a director wants to direct because it's something that will challenge them in terms of creating the visuals and if you're really on fire, it'll be something that no one else has done.

So if you want to go with an HCV for your story, you need to look at your subject matter and consider how you could represent that in a unique visual way. One scene that immediately springs to my mind would be something involving match cuts creating a juxtaposition of the world of the poverty-stricken family and that of the powerfully rich. Of course match cuts by themselves aren't anything new, so you'd need to be very clever in using them (possibly with a bit of a morphing effect - see something like the Dead Zone TV show for the way it handles some of its transitions) and incorporate the storytelling in such a way that it's essential to the scene and not just a clever little visual trick.

In essence this should be your version of the ball-bearing bomb scene in Swordfish - something that they devote half an hour to on the DVD as they explain how they created it.

That's just one idea off the top of my head though, but hopefully it gives something of a flavour of how the concept can be adopted.

Morgan McKinnon said...

"By itself - no. In fact the first thing it suggests to me is the Beverly Hill Billies!"

Well Iain...you must be psychic because *oil* in that backwoods country town is exactly where I was 'aheading.

"The High Concept Visual is a cinematic reference - it's the visuals you see in the trailer that make you want to see the film - and more importantly (at least to making a sale) it has to be something a director wants to direct because it's something that will challenge them in terms of creating the visuals and if you're really on fire, it'll be something that no one else has done."

I think I'm on fire. Though, I thought it was about making something that's been done...different. *That's* what I intend to do.

"So if you want to go with an HCV for your story, you need to look at your subject matter and consider how you could represent that in a unique visual way. One scene that immediately springs to my mind would be something involving match cuts creating a juxtaposition of the world of the poverty-stricken family and that of the powerfully rich. Of course match cuts by themselves aren't anything new, so you'd need to be very clever in using them (possibly with a bit of a morphing effect - see something like the Dead Zone TV show for the way it handles some of its transitions) and incorporate the storytelling in such a way that it's essential to the scene and not just a clever little visual trick."

I think I have an incredibly clever way to show the two lifestyles. A way in which the audience will be compell to watch to see how these two lifestyles will meet.

You mentioned SWORDFISH. I'll mention A GOOD YEAR.