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Complications Ensue:
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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Just reading The New York Times article about how Walt Disney and other animation artists screened their films without dialog, and then added as little dialog as possible to make sense of the images. The writer says recent animated films have been too talky.

I don't think the image is somehow superior to the soundtrack, as some film purists do. But I do believe that in film, anything you say you should say once. If the image is already saying it, there is no need to say it with dialog. (Which reminds me of the BBC's handbook for writing for radio, Put Down That Revolver That You're Pointing At Me.)

In TV, it's less clear cut. TV used to be "radio with pictures." You can listen to The Honeymooners with the picture off and you won't miss much. Probably not a good idea to do that with The Sopranos, though. The climax of a Grey's Anatomy is often close to wordless, with doctors hunched over their patients. These days TV aspires to be as cinematic as film.

Ideally both soundtrack and image add something unique. Everything should add something unique; nothing should double up. That's how you get a rich show.

But you can still use Walt's trick as a tool to stretch your imagination. Remove your voice over and see how the show plays. Remove the snappy dialog and see if you can say some of the same things with images. (See the quasi-dialog-less Buffy episode, "Hush.")

It's risky to do it in a spec. Dialog reads easier than action. Some readers tend to ignore the action, especially if there's dialog to keep the story going. Better to risk that sort of thing in a free lance episode, where you can warn your story editor in advance what you're trying. And certainly, try it in a staff episode, if you've still got time to think...


You are so right, my friend. One Harold Lloyd from the 20s is worth ten Will Ferrell-wisecrack-every-second from the 00s. Love the blog!

By Blogger Georgi Rimsakov, at 10:53 AM  

I think one of the things that made the "X-Files" stand out was the amount of visual story-telling it used. That and the use of heavy shadows gave it that cinematic feel.

It's my understanding that both of these things were frowned upon by the networks at the time. They wanted the image readable on the cheapest B&W set. And the story understandable even if the viewer was looking away.

But Fox was willing to take these risks. And it paid off.

That may have been one of the reasons that the "X-Files" movie didn't quite work. The series was already cinematic, and they didn't know how to up the the ante.

But the "X-Files" cinematic style hasn't had much influence. Most current shows use a lot of flat lighting, limited visual story-telling and a fair amount of redundant dialog.

I was recently watching some episodes of LOST and INVASION, both shows I like. But I was amazed how these shows "came alive" during the brief instances when they relied on visual story-telling.

By Blogger Robot Porter, at 5:23 PM  

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