casablanca

Film Technique: How A Master Uses Image Systems

An image system is an image or a motif that is repeated during a film. The audience is watching it but they’re not aware of it. The image system is there, but the director hides it enough so that the audience is not really aware of what they’re looking at, unless somebody points it out.

But wait a minute … if the audience is not aware of an image system, then what difference does it make?

Aha! Great question. Well, just because an audience is not aware of an image system doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect them.

Images have the power to bypass the part of the brain that does the judging and get straight to the part that feels. This is one of the things film does very well, and an image system is one of the way in which it does it — a highly effective way. We hide the images in plain sight, so that the brain can’t analyze them and catalogue them. In that way, they affect you without filters, raw.

The image system usually reinforces a thematic concern of the film by repeating an image that has connotation for the story. Let me explain: The film “Casablanca,” for example, has an image system of prisons.

There’s an airport tower light in Casablanca that rotates like a prison guard tower light, as if it was searching for somebody. This reinforces the idea that the residents of Casablanca are prisoners in their own country.

The characters are often seen through bars, or through the shadows of bars. There are even scenes in which characters are wearing stripes.

This is all part of the design of the film, and as you watch it, you don’t really notice it. You can watch the entire film and never become aware of the image systems. (Now that I’ve pointed them out, next time you see the film, you’ll notice for sure!)

Another one of my favorite image system examples is “Michael Clayton.” In “Michael Clayton,” written and directed by Tony Gilroy, the color red represents the truth. (At least that’s what I think. I’ll have to ask Tony one of these days.) And as the tagline of the film suggests, in this story, the truth can be adjusted.

There’s a book in the film that plays an important part in the story. This is a book that the son of the protagonist is reading, that he wants his dad to read. The book has a red cover.

There’s a scene in which Walter, one of the main characters of the film, is talking to the woman he’s in love with on the phone. He’s wearing a red robe. She talking on a red phone. She’s talking from a room that has red wallpaper.

Right before the scene starts the director shows you an image of a farm in the winter. Most of the frame is white with snow, except for a big red barn.

Michael, the protagonist, finds a major clue to the murder of his friend, in a document his friend had photocopied and bound. The binding of the document is red.

Inside of Walter’s fridge there’s nothing more than a bottle of champagne and some containers of red jello. The inside of the van that takes away the equipment from a failed restaurant venture Michael is trying to auction off, is red.

Over and over, the color plays an important part of the story. Mr. Gilroy masterfully inserts the image system into the fabric of the film and you’re never really aware he’s doing it.

Here’s another instance, and this might be stretching it a bit, but I’m going to go for it anyway: the protagonist’s son, the only thing true and pure in his life, is a read head.

When you’re watching the film, you don’t notice these things unless you’re looking for them, and even then, they can be so subtle it can still be hard to identify them. I sometimes play a game with my students. I tell them there’s an image system in the film. I explain to them what an image system is, but I don’t tell them what it is, and 90 percent of students can’t figure it out, even though they’re looking for it.

Once I point it out, they can see it no problem.

This is because the image system works best when you’re not aware of it, when your brain can’t edit it and interpret it. It affects you in a much more powerful way. Once I point it out then it loses most of its power: Now you can identify it as a device. (My apologies to Mr. Gilroy for spoiling the fun. His film is superb and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, spoilers or not.)

It is the mark of the amateur filmmaker to show you the metaphor up front, to make it visible. To say, “Look, this means something!”

The pro puts the metaphor somewhere in the back, to enhance the story, but never leads with it. The story always comes first. Remember that. Story, story, story.

Still, that doesn’t mean you can have some fun with the other stuff as well.

NOTE: All production stills are the property of Warner Brothers and used here for editorial purposes only.

 

6 Movie Ad Libs that Became Classics — And What You Can Learn From Them

Some of the most well known lines from movies, and even scenes, are actually ad libbed, or improvised. Improvisation actually has many benefits for actors.

Below are six famous movie scenes that you may have not known were improvised.

“Here’s looking at you, kid.”

“Casablanca,” 1942

Most people are familiar with Humphrey Bogart’s line from the 1942 movie, “Casablanca.” Bogart was teaching actress Ingrid Bergman how to play poker between takes when Bogart first said the famous line. Once they were back on camera, the line came out spontaneously during one of the flashback scenes in Paris.

“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”

“The Godfather,” 1972

Everybody loves cannoli! Francis Ford Coppola, the director of “The Godfather,” added the line, “don’t forget the cannoli,” last minute to the script. But Richard Castellano decided to take Coppola’s line and make it his own.

“Are you talkin’ to me?”

“Taxi Driver,” 1976

One sentence in the screenplay, which reads, “Travis looks in the mirror,” led to Robert De Niro improvising the entire scene in the movie.

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

“Jaws,” 1975

After Roy Schneider encounters the Great White shark, the scene was supposed to close. Instead, Schneider made up this line to help bring closure to the encounter.

“Son of a b****, he stole my line.”

“Good Will Hunting,” 1997

When Robin Williams goes to the mailbox to read a note, Williams said a different line for each take of the final scene in the movie because nothing was scripted. Co-star Matt Damon, who co-wrote the script, told Boston Magazine in 2015 that after Williams said the well-known line, “It was like a bolt, it was just one of those holy s*** moments, where, like, that’s it.”

Heeeeere’s Johnny!”

“The Shining,” 1980

Nothing is scarier than Jack Nicholson, who portrays Jack Torrance, busting a door down with an ax. During that scene, Nicholson’s character sticks his head through a hole in the door, and says, Heeeeere’s Johnny!” Nicholson’ joke, which referenced Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” was almost cut because director Stanley Kubrick, who is from England, didn’t know the reference.

What are some of your favorite movie ad libs? Let us know below! Want to learn more about acting techniques? Study acting at the New York Film Academy.

5 Brilliant Screenplays That Were Rejected … Repeatedly

In an industry dominated with rejection, sometimes a single “yes” is all it takes to change the face of cinema forever. Here are five truly groundbreaking movies that, for some studios, were a little too groundbreaking…

1. “Pulp Fiction” (1994)

Despite being a quickly rising star in Hollywood at the time, Quentin Tarrantino had a lengthy battle in trying to get any studio interested in his follow up to “Reservoir Dogs.”

Why “Pulp Fiction” was Rejected: According to Columbia TriStar executive Mike Medavoy, the script was “too demented.” TriStar initially optioned the film and was even in talks to produce it, but then did a 180 by declaring, “This is the worst thing ever written. It makes no sense. Someone’s dead and then they’re alive. It’s too long, violent, and unfilmable.”

Very few studios were willing to touch a movie featuring heavy heroin use, and the search for a new backer was extensive before Miramax picked it up.

2. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981)

Initially dubbed “The Adventures of Indiana Smith,” even the attachment of industry superstars George Lucas and Steven Spielberg wasn’t enough to garner significant studio interest.

Why Indiana Jones was Rejected: It wasn’t actually Lucas’ screenplay that lead to it being rejected by every single studio in Hollywood, but more the fact that he was asking $20 million to make it. Paramount ended up footing the bill and Lucas shrewdly negotiated a five-film contract; it ended up grossing nearly $400 million at gross and is frequently heralded as the best action-adventure movie of all time.

3. “Back to the Future” (1985)

Another ‘80s classic that nearly got passed up entirely (incidentally, “Back to the Future” ended up sharing the same budget and box office gross as “Raiders of the Lost Ark”).

Why “Back to the Future” was Rejected: It was either too family-friendly or not family-friendly enough, depending on who you asked. Pretty much every major studio rejected the screenplay, with Disney advising that a film alluding to mother-son incest was not “appropriate under the Disney banner,” while Columbia thought it was a “really nice, cute, warm film, but not sexual enough.”

The great Steven Spielberg always loved the script, however, and committed it to Amblin Entertainment as soon as he was able. The rest, as they say, is history — but it nearly got titled “Spaceman from Pluto.”

Naturally, Spielberg replied to the memo and told Sid Sheinberg that he had to be joking. The suggestion was never mentioned again.

4. “The Usual Suspects” (1995)

Now listed by the Writer’s Guild of America as the 35th greatest screenplay of all time, the ultimate mystery crime thriller nearly became as elusive as Keyser Söze.

Why “The Usual Suspects” was Rejected: Much like “Pulp Fiction,” the non-linear plotline of this screenplay completely baffled studios. After numerous rejections (and nine different drafts), the only company who would touch it was a European financing company. Somewhat surprisingly, director Bryan Singer managed to make the movie a masterpiece despite only having a $6 million budget.

5. “Casablanca” (1943)

The curious case of “Casablanca”: a screenplay rejected by numerous agencies 30 years after it had already become one of the world’s finest movies.

Why “Casablanca” was Rejected: It wasn’t rejected the first time around. But in 1982, freelance writer Chuck Ross wanted to see whether movie agents would recognize the screenplay if he sent it out again … and if not, would they recognize its greatness?

It was a clever experiment. Ross retitled the script “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” (the title of the original play on which “Casablanca” was based) and sent it out to 217 different Hollywood agencies.

The results?

  • 90 returned the screenplay because they weren’t looking for submissions.
  • 33 agents recognized the script immediately.
  • 8 spotted a similarity with the 1943 classic, but didn’t spot that it was exactly the same.

However, 38 of the 217 read and rejected the classic script. Among the feedback Ross received, agents claimed there was “too much dialogue” and that the storyline was “too weak.” One even suggested it needed “a professional polish.”

But funnier still is that three agencies loved it and wanted to turn it into a movie.

It just goes to show: even the best screenplays on the planet get rejected. All it takes is just one “yes.”

Do you have an interesting experience of taking a project through many rejections to find success? Let us know in the comments below!