Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Power of Clichés

They say the eyes are the window of the soul. They also warn us there be monsters in a film. Monsters like the Cheese Burglar!

When the Cheese Burglar was young, he fell in love, which apparently makes you feel like you have a giant head. . . floating over the ocean.

But it was not to be. The fast lane was where he wanted to be, fast women, fast cars, fast food.

Arson, guns, unlimited cans of whoopass, this was his new life and he flame broiled anyone who got in his way. . . it was all so black and white.

But even arsonists get the blues, and things began to go crooked for our Cheese Burglar when he lent a friend money to buy a cheeseburger. . . he said he would gladly pay Tuesday.

He didn’t. Now the Cheese Burglar roams the streets alone looking for the man who took his money.

I noticed long ago browsing the video store aisles (and book stores) that movie posters and book covers are all about clichés. On the one hand, I guess, this is a good thing. Clichés exist because they have become universally recognized as having meaning. And since we all know what they mean, that lets you pack more information into simpler images. Indeed, single images can now tell whole stories and simple phrases can take the place of whole pages.

But too often clichés become a substitute for substance. When the clichés leave the marketing world of the movie poster and book covers, and they begin to occupy the substantive world of plots, then things go wrong. And too many films today are little more than clichés strung together to create the impression of a film.

Is it any wonder box office attendance is down 11% over two years? The problem isn’t even the topic of films or the incredible number of reboots or sequels, it’s that these films are lifeless, meaningless, and void of any substance when you get into them. This is because Hollywood has begun to speak in clichés rather than ideas. It’s stopped being the dream factory and become the film assembly center. And as long as they continue down that path, things will only get worse.

What are your most despised clichés?


Anonymous said...

A few of these posters are actually pretty good but I miss the heyday of hand-painted posters (the work of Drew Struzan, Bob Peak, etc.). Thankfully, there are still filmmakers out there like Guillermo del Toro and Frank Darabont that feel the same way and, if they can't have hand-painted posters for theatrical release, they'll do it for the DVD/BR release instead.

My hated cliches are too numerous to mention but when it comes to advertising, I HATE trailers for comedies where the music stops for the punchline (which usually isn't funny).

A few others that come to mind...

This line of dialogue: "That's on a need to know basis and right now, you don't need to know." (I swear Babylon 5 used this line three episodes in a row!)

The old "Cell phone that loses a signal in a crucial moment" gag, but you know what? I just have to accept it. After all, it does happen. Cell phones and computers have taken some of the fun out of action movies so filmmakers have to be careful.

On that note, there are a ton of other computer-related cliches including my favorite: EVERYTHING MAKES A SOUND. Have you ever seen a movie where the computer only made sound when you turned it on and off? No. Every keystroke, every movement of a window, every progress bar... they all have their own cool "woosh" sounds in movies. I wish my computer had that.

Individualist said...

Well it is not so much that I despise it as laugh at it. but the computer geek who is really smart and knows everything about everything (cause he can doubleclick with a mouse I guess). what really has me laughing is when they show the individual using a keyboard and he types a mile a minute and never hits the enter key.

Especially when he is supposedly programming code. Forgot drawing out flowcharts and agonizing over whether you are employing the five rules of normal database design. no we have to type commands really fast so that we can beat the computer. LOL!

Anonymous said...

Indi -

Check this website out!

It's called Hacker Typer... just click Hack! on the first screen and once the screen goes black, start typing. I imagine it's all gibberish but it looks like something out of a movie. :-)

Individualist said...


That is great Scott

ASCII Venus language cause movie star copmputer geeks are a beautiful thing.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, There are some good posters there, but it gets pretty funny when you see them all lined up. It really shows how "packaged" these films are.

I actually first noticed this years ago walking through videostores when it started to dawn on my that the cover to each type of film was virtually identical. When I saw these collections of posters, I had to laugh and that's why I wrote the article.

Computers are funny on film because they seem to have become super-crutches. They can find anything, calculate anything, do anything. I don't know about you, but I can't ask my computer what the mass of a meteor is nor can I look up people online without knowing their names and find their resumes.

You're right about the sounds too. The one that always killed me was the guy driving the car who keeps changing gears over and over even when they're going all out on the highway. It's stupid.

(More thoughts coming soon, am behind this morning.)

Individualist said...

Well Andrew

In order to be able to ask a computer the mass of a meteor that has heretofor been unrecognized one has to have been so smart and so cool that they had to drop out of high school cause they knew more than the teachers. Then by the power of spending 100 hours a week playing video games on their computer they excel at everything as they magically find their true talent.

Then you have to spend your life in the bottom of a basement but because this is the movies and you are cool it is not your mom's basement. Someone else's mom is OK but it is not your mom.

There you will bond with the technological devices of the world and despite the fact that you never made any friends people in need will know your hacker name and be able to find you so that you can them tell them cool things like how much a meteor wieghs.

It's a thing.

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, Yeah, I love that too -- the guy who just randomly types super fast on the computer and bingo! Suddenly they have a computer program that would take NASA 20 years to develop, complete with 3D graphics and the ability to provide plot-specific information.

To me, that's horrid writing. That's as bad as having someone suddenly pop into a scene to tell you where the bad guy is... "oh, you're looking for Goldfinger? Shoot, he just bought the old Dr. No place up on Ridge Road."

Good writing can take short cuts, but it should never get ridiculous.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott and Indi, Great website! LOL! I think I've seen that in the movies... a lot.

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, I get that sense because that does seem to be how all computer types work in Hollywood. In fact, you could almost call it a cliche! LOL!

What I love about the meteor example (which was on the SciFi channel recently) is the utter lack of data. The guy just pounded the keyboard and suddenly we got a perfect image of the asteroid and all of it's vitals... without any connection to a sensor or camera or any other source of data about the asteroid. The computer just somehow knew everything there was to know because the guy typed in some "code." Laughable.

I also like the mail systems they use on computers which can do magical things.

It's all pretty pathetic.

Anonymous said...

There are plenty of Internet memes featuring Hollywood's misuse of computers but this C.S.I. comic strip is quite accurate. There are others but this was the first one I found.

Re: cell phones, other than cutting to the "signal lost" screen, what else can screenwriters do? After all, it isn't very dramatic when the hero can call up any information he needs at any time. But like anything else, I'm sure a talented writer could work around it but would the audience buy it?

With the various cell phone carriers starting "data throttling," I'd love to see a movie character attempt to call up some info on his phone, only to be greeted with a screen explaining that he can't because he used too much bandwidth!

(Oh, I believe Nolte will be mentioning the Trek series in today's bulletin.)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That would be hilarious. "You have exceeded your allowable usage... prepare to die."

The thing about cell phones is that they definitely have the potential to ruin movies, so you do need to work them carefully. The best way is to take them out of the picture -- dead battery, dropped in water, forgot my phone, refuse to own one, out of range, etc.

To me though, the problem comes with the incredible usage when the writers do decide to leave them in the story. Indeed, they tend to go insane with it. For example, they somehow end up calling the bad guy rather than whoever they were trying to reach or their conversation gets tapped or they reach the internet and do a quick search and get information that just doesn't exist on the net.

These are the real problems with things like cell phones and computers. And for once, I'd like to see a character make an impossible request which usually gets answered in films and have the other character glare at them and say "what are you stupid? How am I supposed to find that?"

Excellent link, by the way, I HATE that! There isn't a computer program in the world that can do anything like enhance a license plate like that and yet... it happens ALL THE TIME!! Ahhhh!

Anonymous said...

Some additional links at TV Tropes for:

Cell phones


Magical computers, which has another couple dozen links.

AndrewPrice said...

Nice! They've definitely nailed the computers as a substitute for magic aspect. And I think all the tropes are spot on.

Tennessee Jed said...

my biggest cliche, particularly used in cop t.v. dramas is where the bad guys have one of the good guys and are going to do really bad things to him or her. You absolutely know the partner will come to the rescue at the last minute, then the partner in peril will give a cliched line about "what took you so long."

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Oh yeah, that's a biggie. That seems to be the most irresistible cliché for cop shows. That plus how the one partner (the one who follows the rules) is ready to retire when they get assigned the young, brash, reckless cop buddy they can’t stand. I also like how they all drive around with a trunk full of automatic weapons.

Individualist said...

Well its an oldie but a goodie...

How about the cliche about the guy who gets shot 50 times but can't die until he is allowed to give his death speech.

I think it would be a great comedy spoof to have a unit in a fire fight and have people get shot by a sniper, give a speech and then die only to have the sniper shoot someone else.

After two times the rest of the soldiers should figure this out and decide to gag the next guy to get shot so that he cannot give his speech. Thus he can't die and the sniper would not be able to shoot anyone else. They then get away from the danger zone.

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, the best thing about cliches is when you take them and twist them around, as you've done. That sounds like it would be a funny scene.

I recall in Hot Shots (I think) where he keeps going from dying bad guy to dying bad guy trying to get the whole "death speech" but they keep dying on him before they get to the good part.

LawHawkRFD said...

I haven't been in a video/DVD store or department in a long time. I could see the plot cliches when I watched the films, but until you did the visual on this site, I hadn't noticed the cliched covers. Gave me a good laugh.

Individualist said...


LOL! you could make whole episode of this I think. They get back to base camp and the doctor recommends they not remove the duct tape gag or he will die. He then has to drink liquid food through a straw.

But they realize the benefits of this and send him to the front lines where he is now immune to bullts and shrapnel because the gag protects him.

The enemy figures this out and sends pretty girl spies to remove the gag and ninjas.

Heck you could do a whole set of comedy sketches on this.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I can't take credit for the artwork -- I found that somewhere. But I have to say I never realized how many virtually identical covers are out there! It's amazing when you see them all together.

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, That's where modern parody lies, in exploiting cliches because they've become so darn prevalent in modern films (and on television).

tryanmax said...

Okay, that hacker app was waaaaaaaay too fun!

JG said...

My personal favorite pet peeve was a popular one in my fiction classes in college: the expendable character who is about to tell the main characters who the murderer is, but is shot/hit by a car/poisoned/heart attack/etc. mid-sentence. "As I came around the corner, I saw that it was --- ARGH!" You better believe I called them out every time.

tryanmax said...

I used to design posters for a local theater (stage plays, not movies) and I confess to employing a few of those clichés myself. EXAMPLE

I used to collect movie posters, attempting to only to gather ones that were unique or original. I gave up.

tryanmax said...

Great strip, Scott! has loads of articles about the same topic. Here's my fav. LINK

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, A lot of those are pretty good and sadly way to common.

CrisD said...

Wow, it was fun to look at he posters. I thought of The Graduate for the legs one. We watched that over the break. The kids were amazed at it--time capsule wise.

Cliches about ones work are annoying as my husband always complains about laboratories that have colorful vials (they rarely do), my father would complain bitterly about trial scenes as a trial lawyer he knew what was never said or done in a real court of law versus movie-they would be put in jail for the arguements with the judge for instance. How about when someone gets drunk and beat up and then appears to argue a case. Seen it, been there, done that :)

AndrewPrice said...

JG, I HATE that!! And they do it all the time. It's just so wrong. And in most cases, there was no reason to wait to tell anyone except to give the killer time to get you, and there is usually no way for the killer to know you're about to spill the beans, not to mention their timing is somehow amazingly perfect. That's an awful cliche.... and yet, you see it all the time. Ug.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, remember the TNG episode about the entire culture who's language was reduced to clichéd expressions, "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra"?

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, While I am down on cliches, there is a reason they are effective -- they provide a tremendous amount of information about what you will find within the film/play/book with a minimum of words. And these posters wouldn't be used over and over and over and over again if they didn't draw in the eye and get people's attention. So as much as I hate it, cliches work.

On the cracked link, I really love the point about the guy guessing the size of the computer processor just from looking at the screensaver. LOL! Sadly, I've seen that a lot of television. Cop shows in particular seem inept at handling technology.

Also, on Hackers, that is an absolutely ridiculous film, but I enjoy it -- strong soundtrack, talented up and coming actors and a good deal of fun, provided you don't expect any sense of reality.

tryanmax said...

A similar cliché is the villain who is for some reason compelled to explain his motives to the hero before killing him, which provides ample time for the sidekick to come in and save the hero.

AndrewPrice said...

CrisD, Legal films drive me up the walls. There is so much real drama that can come out of the law, but they go for bizaro things that can't really happen and moments that are so unrealistic I just want to throw a law book through my television. Ug!

I understand the need for dramatic license, but most of what they do goes so far beyond that into the land of fairytale that it actually frustrates me that people might think any of it is real.

On labs, the crime lab stuff drives me nuts. 99.9% of what they show simply doesn't exist. The rest doesn't work the way they act like it does. And it doesn't give you the kinds of results they pretend.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Yep. On the one hand, I liked the idea behind the episode. But their execution was nonsense. If they couldn't speak the language then how could Data and Troi even figure out who the people were they were talking about??!

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Yeah, scripts should catch on fire the moment you write: "I might as well tell you because you won't be able to tell anyone."

Also, that's where Austin Powers was so brilliant:

Scotty -- "I've got a gun in my room. I can get it and we can kill him right now. It'll take like 20 seconds."

Dr. Evil: "No, I will put him in an easily escapable situation and leave him unguarded. I'm sure it will all work out ok."


tryanmax said...

Just thought of another cliché used in movie promos, maybe not so much any more, but it used to be common.

In comedy promos, some dorky character will say something faux pas and the funky music gives way to a record scratch.

More specifically, for ugly-duckling/coming of age comedies, that cliché will get used right before the tone switches to the feel-good soft rock, the transformation montage rolls, the deep-voiced V.O. guy goes into the bit about "learning about life...and love" and clip of romantic dialogue, wide shot of a small town, V.O. name of actor, 1/2 second from the fight scene, V.O. name of actress, "I need you," awkward kiss, music crescendos, embracing under the stars, A N D . . . Blackout!

Generic Teen RomCom Title

Summer 2012

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Yep, that's pretty much every ad for a romantic comedy in the past 20 years.

On a related note, I'm amazed too how far they will go these days to cut up the dialog to create false impressions of film in trailers. So many times now I'm seeing they splice together two or even three lines to create some moment for the trailer that never exists in the film. You really see that a lot in these lone-wolf-revenge films.

tryanmax said...

Worse than that, with so many outtakes in the typical comedy these days, lots of promos use those outtakes that never appear in the final film.

Anonymous said...

In comedy promos, some dorky character will say something faux pas and the funky music gives way to a record scratch.

I actually touched on this in my first comment. I HATE this!

And, yeah, romantic trailers use the same two or three songs over and over again.

But there is a reason for all this and even trailers and posters are tested in front of audiences just like movies.

That's why I give credit to trailers and teasers that try to do something different, including:

-Fight Club, which had a couple of bizarre in-theater PSAs...

-Rules of Attraction, which I didn't like as much as I wanted to...

-and Star Trek VI, which had an awesome teaser narrated by Christopher Plummer

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I've seen that a lot too these days. I can think of two films that did that in the past and it was brilliant both times because the scenes were great and it generated buzz that they weren't in the film.

1. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: With Steve Martin pushing a woman into a lake.

2. Major League: "That ball wouldn't have been hit out of some parks." ... "Name one." ... "Yellowstone."

But today, it's pretty common place. Its the same way the "Domino's Pizza Half Time Report" was brilliant when it first happened, but today they're all wasting their money sponsoring everything that gets said on television.

tryanmax said...

I'm not sure how to explain why this recut trailer for The Shining fits into this conversation, but it clearly does: LINK

I remember when I discovered this there was a popular meme of recuts. I still like this one the best because everything shown and said about the movie is accurate, yet it portrays a completely different story than the actual film. In contrast, some other recuts include voice over that is contrary to the film in question or they will splice in footage from other movies.

This also serves as a lesson in how media can misrepresent things without actually lying--a concept that is apparently more difficult to grasp than it should be.

(Incidentally, my captcha is a dirty word. I won't say what, but it's funny.)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Excellent clips. I too like stuff that takes a different approach. Once I start seeing cliches in trailers, I instantly start thinking the movie is probably formulaic crap. Life is too short for that stuff.

Believe it or not, the best trailers I remember are from Alfred Hitchcock who never even shows you anything from the film, but instead spends his time telling you how what you will see is too horrible for him to even talk about. They're brilliant.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Yeah, you got caught in the spamfilter for some reason, Mr. "unknown". LOL!

In terms of why that trailer from The Shining fits this discussion, it fits because it takes all the cliches you can imagine and uses them to completely misrepresent the film. It's brilliant!

Coincidentally, I've been debating linking to it myself! Great minds, right?

AndrewPrice said...

Oh, I had no idea that was a Google error. I thought you had a separate personally as "unknown." Interesting.

tryanmax said...

I think I need to change my password because this isn't the first time I've had such weirdness lately.

tryanmax said...

And now I see I've deleted comments that I didn't actually delete.

Well, if I disappear completely, it's because Blogger ate me.

tryanmax said...

But before I get devoured, here's another good one:

AndrewPrice said...

Nice. I didn't delete those either. It sounds like Blogger is messing with you. Or someone else is? Blogger, sadly, is not the most stable platform despite the millions of users.

Can you repost the Shining link so people know what you were talking about?

AndrewPrice said...

By the way, now I'm being kicked out by Google.

AndrewPrice said...

In terms of mashup, here are a couple good ones:

1. C is for Cookie -- a parody of V is for Vendetta: LINK

2. Gay Harry Potter: LINK

Ed said...

Excellent images! I've never put together that so many films have nearly identical posters. Fascinating!

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, It is fascinating to see them all together. There were a couple more as well, but I think the point was made and they weren't as much perfect copies as using similar elements. These above could have come straight out of a manual.

tryanmax said...

Okay, new password. Let's hope for the best. Here is the Shining link:

I'll let you do the dirty work, just in case.

AndrewPrice said...

You ended up in the spam filter again. I have no idea why?

Here's the link: The Shining

tryanmax said...

I'm not so big on the "gay" recuts, just because it is fairly easy to take any film with either best friends or worst enemies and make them seem gay. Though a mashup rather than a recut requires a bit more creativity.

AndrewPrice said...

They found some great footage in this one, especially a mention of a bathroom.

But the better one in my opinion is the C is for Cookie. It really mocks the original material quite nicely.

ScyFyterry said...

Did you find anything sci-fi specific in the posters?

AndrewPrice said...

ScyFyTerry, The first one with the eyes is mainly horror but also science fiction, but no, the place I found these did not have anything science fiction specific poster.

But now that you mention it, I wonder what that would look like? Hmm. Have to think about this.

T-Rav said...

It's not exactly the same thing, but League of Extraordinary Gentlemen always stuck out at me as a movie that was basically cliche from beginning to end. It's not that bad a movie, I think, but it's really just a bunch of movie tropes strung together. There's the "villain tells you his game plan in advance" thing JG mentioned. The whole tension-between-characters-who-gradually-learn-to-work-together subplot is totally shoehorned in. Even the dialogue is hammy most of the time. So I guess you could say LXG is a cliche movie.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I hate to admit it, but I do kind of like that film.

// hangs head in shame

That said, I agree with you -- it's all cliche. And what isn't a cliche is basically stolen from other films.

Individualist said...


Looking at the posters and seeing the similar background colors and the poses you have to wonder if they are doing this because a group of psychologists have determined this is the best visual to elicit the response that they want.

What intrigues me is the one that is obviously selling sex. There are many provacative poses but they are showing a girl standing with legs aprt in an upside down V. IT only shows the bottom and in many cases the caboose is not even prominent. Sure the pictrures are suggestive but you would think other poses would be more provacative.

All I can think is there must be some psyucoanalytical calculus going on that makes those poses work to sell the movie. Interesting!

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, I suspect these were probably made with trial and error rather than any sort of specific study. And once they found one that seems to sell and projects the image they want (according to the focus groups), they probably all started copying it.

In other words, I'm not sure they sat down with a psychologist to come up with these, but I know they have determined these sell the image they want to project.

tryanmax said...

LXG seems to be very self-aware in its clichéd-ness. I give it a pass for that. When a film goes all-in with the clichés, then it is totally forgivable. The Expendables comes to mind.

tryanmax said...

On the movie posters, part of my comm studies involved visual communication. Then I got it again in my graphic design studies. (different schools) I imagine that is pretty typical of most comm and design programs. Indie's theory is probably a little more elaborate than reality, but I don't think he is too far off.

There is a definite, reliable language of color, though it varies widely from culture to culture. Strangely, global communication doesn't seem to be muting those differences very much. The use of angles to suggest movement, dynamism, and discord has been understood since the Renaissance as has the use of verticals to convey strength and horizontals to convey placidity.

Another visual pattern that is not so widely known is that people in most cultures views images in a "Z" pattern. Cultures that write right-to-left do a reverse "Z" and cultures that write bottom-to-top do an upside-down "Z" but it is always a "Z". Knowing that causes most layouts to conform to similar patterns. Web page viewing patterns are fascinating because they look like "Zs" that sorta trail off instead of ending sharply.

As to the inverted "V" with the legs, looking through something, be it a window, an arch, or a pair of legs, conveys possibility--someplace you can go that you haven't yet. The connotations of looking through a pair of legs becomes obvious.

Why always female legs? you might ask. This is where the psychological studies come in. When asked to view sex scenes or pornography, researchers found that men and women have strikingly similar viewing patters albeit for very different reasons. Both genders tend to focus on the female participant. Men, of course, find the female alluring. Women, however, are relating to the female participant. A similar study found that men and women both linger longer over images of attractive females in advertising than attractive men. Thus, when using sex to sell, it makes the most sense to use women.

I don't have any citations, but these studies get repeated every couple of years (nice to know what our universities are up to) and appear in the psychology sections of periodicals that are attempting to seem more intellectual than they really are. So you can wait for one of those to come out to verify everything I am saying.

Individualist said...


Thanks for that.....

I knew there had to be some sort of rational. It is intereting that you mention the Z pattern because that is how you read a comic book. When there are multiple rows you read them across and then down one in a series of Z's

tryanmax said...

Exactly, that is one of the first things people are taught in any culture that reads, is to follow that "Z" pattern from line to line. So when it comes to pictures, we just take the whole thing in in one giant "Z". How we learn to read determines the direction of the "Z".

I imagine if there were a culture around today (because they did once exist) that read in a spiral, they would view pictures in a spiral or circle pattern starting at the center.

Also, something a good comic artist will do even when there are multiple rows of frames on a page is try to make a compilation that is coherent when viewed in the large, single "Z". Look for it the next time you're reading a comic. This also accounts for the reason why there are usually no more than three rows on a page.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I agree about LXG. I think it was way over the top but it was clever about the way it went over the top, so I cut it a lot of slack in that regard.

T-Rav said...

Andrew and tryanmax, I actually like it too. It's pretty high-concept stuff, even if the execution was rather flawed, and I give it points for thinking outside the box on your typical superhero stuff. The cliches still bother me, though.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I hadn't heard about the "Z" pattern, but I have seen the rest over and over.

In fact, the first time I heard about the idea that both men and women will focus on the woman in a pair came from a program about magicians. Then I read about it in an advertising class. And it's come up many times since. In addition to both genders focusing on the female, color matters (red for example is hugely attractive and has been shown to increase spending) as well as other factors. Certain objects also signify certain things. Etc.

So it doesn't surprise me that these posters would make use of those factors. It just surprises me that they are so blatant about copying each other.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, On the Z pattern, I saw something interesting a few months ago about where people look at a human body or a car in a picture. They did a study using cameras that follow eye motion and they found that men and women follow the same pattern when viewing bodies (if I remember correctly it was face, breasts, calf, butt) although they linger for different lengths of time on each part. But when it came to cars, the male and female viewing patterns were almost entirely opposite.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. It's amazing how much science has been able to explain/describe reactions that we think of as natural or which we think are random.... like the idea that physical attraction is actually based on smell.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I agree. One of the things I like about it is that it makes so many references to Western culture and it uses them intelligently. It's execution suffers at times and the moment to moment action is very cliche, but the idea itself is as you say "high concept."

Anonymous said...

Interesting conversation! As a budding art/design major (and future filer of unemployment if the statistics are true), I will most likely be getting a lot of this in the classroom pretty soon.

Having said that, when it comes to cinema, maybe it's because I'm a film school grad but certain visual cliches stick out like a sore thumb for me.

Obviously, the use of color has an effect on the viewer. Same for the camera angle, focal length, etc. If the director wants to invoke a sad mood for example, he'll have it rain. But it's gotten to the point now where I can see the puppet master at work. I'm sure most movie-goers are still somewhat oblivious to all this but perhaps the real problem is there aren't enough good directors out there...?

Everything that goes into making a film is manipulation... but the best directors are the ones where you don't notice it - too often, I notice it.

(This post came off as a little more random than I had intended!)

tryanmax said...

The body/car thing sounds familiar and totally believable. Very cool.

The "Z" thing was my very first lesson in VisComm 101. But it is so basic that most professional artists (painters, photographers, etc.) don't even know about it and yet use it constantly. Essentially, it is one of those things that marks a good artist from a bad one in that the good artist will adhere to the "rule" without even realizing it.

But here is the rub, once you know about the rule, you can exploit it. If you want to "hide" something in a picture, so to speak, you put it in the diagonal stroke of the "Z". Everyone looks at it, but no one remembers having seen it. It's a way to sneak an idea to people without drawing attention to it.

If you want to drive a point home, put it on the bottom stroke of the "Z" but keep it very simple. Even though the "Z" glance is brief, the mind is "fatigued" by the time it gets to the bottom. A short, one-word message like "HOPE" would be very effective in this position.

Then there are all sorts of tricksy things to be done using the space around the "Z". Going back to the HOPE poster, notice how the 0bama "O" is outside the "Z". Why do you suppose that is? Shepard Fairey may be a douche, but he's no idiot. He didn't want that to jump out at you. He wanted you to see it but not to look at it. The strong image is 0bama's face--that is what will stick with you. The "O" is a cue that your brain will save for later. The next time you see the 0bama "O" without the face, you still see the face in your mind.

Can you tell this is the stuff I really nerd-out on?

I used to feel embarrassed by my comm degree, because people tend to make fun of it, but I've come to realize that we live in a communication society populated with tons of people who don't even know the first thing about communication. And, frankly, it's people with comm degrees who run much of the world. To give it an analogy, everybody eats, but few people understand nutrition.

Anonymous said...

tryanmax -

Don't be embarrassed by your degree! I geek out on some of this stuff, too. I just have poor retention skills but hopefully having tests and deadlines in school will help me.

Hell, I own a book on the fonts used in the NYC subway system! :-)

tryanmax said...

Scott, tell me more about focal length. Photography was never my strong subject, so I didn't pay as close attention.

It'll be interesting once you get into your major to compare notes. I feel like I had some very good instructors, but who really has the ability to compare?

tryanmax said...

Oh, I am not embarrassed anymore, except by the fact that I should be working on a major political campaign with this subversive knowledge of mine.

Helvetica Book = Geek Porn

Which prompts my asking, do you have a favorite font? I was partial to Futura/Century Gothic before they and variations of them became super popular. Now I content myself with Berlin Sans

Individualist said...


I have friend who was a spotter in the US army and he likes to talk shop about his days in training. I remember him telling me the best way to fire a machinegun at the enemy. He said you start with your focus to the far upper right of your target and you strafe over to the left, then pull forward and to the right simultaneously and then strafe left as if you were drawing a big Z.

He was telling me that this was because you wold cover as much area with your fire as possible with this formation.

I imagine that we focus on a Z when looking for the same reason. what we are doing is subconsciously taking in as much of a picture as possible in a short period of time.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, It's all about paying attention. Curious people will spot things and want to understand them. Soon they start to unravel how things work. But that's a small part of the population -- maybe 20% tops. The other 80% never even ask the questions that get them to understand they are being manipulated... they just mindlessly accept what they are programmed to accept.

When you understand the art of manipulation it's really pretty easy to get the other 80% to believe what you want them to believe. This is where films excel. But it's also why some people (like present company) find themselves so frustrated because we see the simple tricks and we know it doesn't have to be this way, i.e. that Hollywood can do it right or can do it easy, and too often they do it the easy way because they are satisfied working over the 80%.

Also, this goes way beyon just the images on films. Advertising works by selling you things other than the product and associating the product with them in your mind. So you aren't just buying a whiskey, you're buying a woman and a car. It triggers the herd instinct to make you want to be like everyone else. I tricks you with colors, shapes, music, etc. to change your mood and opinions.

In law, I've learned all about how to present yourself and your client to the jury. Some things work, some don't. How you dress matters. How intellectually you speak matters. How much attention you appear to be paying matters.

Of whole existence is about this stuff.

As an aside, to give you one real world example where this mattered, one of the reasons Oliver North beat Congress in the public relations war had to do with the angles. The cameras were beneath him looking up, so when he testified he looked heroic. But for Congress, the cameras were above them, so they looks small and petty.

tryanmax said...

Actually, that does jog a memory of a similar explanation. And just as knowing the enemy's strafing pattern would help you avoid taking a bullet, understanding the visual "Z" patter would allow you to play visual tricks on the viewer.

Anonymous said...

Photography was never my strong subject either. :-)

Focal length is the distance between the lens and the point of focus and determines how much magnification the lens provides. The shorter the focal length, the wider the field of view.

A good example is here.

Anonymous said...

i.e. that Hollywood can do it right or can do it easy

Andrew, there is a great saying among film crews:

"You can have something done well, fast, or cheap - pick two." :-)

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, That's an interesting analysis of the Obama HOPE poster. And I agree with you, that the best artists know this stuff internally without having to think about it and lay it all out.

It's the same thing in law. You can't stand before a jury and try to think about whether or not your hand should be in your pocket -- you just need to know these kinds of things.

As an aside of how powerful this can be, I had a trial once and when the most critical witness against me got on the stand, I leaned back in my chair, set down my pen, folded my hands across my stomach and started looking around the room. The jury took their cue from me and within half a minute, they stopped listening to the witness. They decided that if I didn't care, then they wouldn't care either. That's the kind of thing you can do when you understand how people will react. And the biggest part of litigating is teaching your client to send the right signals. Nevertheless, you would be amazed how many people show up looking exactly like what they've been accused of being and who act in ways that just piss off a jury.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, What's interesting is how many people "in the business" don't understand these things. I've met many political advisors who simply play by a set of generic rules about how everybody has always done it without every grasping what really underlies everything. Karl Rove actually comes to mind in this regard, he's a simpleton when it comes to actually selling a client, he just knows a couple basic principles and he gets credited with being a genius because Bush defeated a lousy candidate using these simple rules.

Unfortunately, too many Republicans view these things as evil or voodoo and thus cede the field to the Democrats, who are much better at crafting the fake realities that comfort people.

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, Not to geek out too much, but our lives are ruled by shapes. Our very bodies are constructed like seashells using the golden spiral and we can be broken down into circles and squares. Everything our brains process can be broken into triangles. And everything we build is based around the same shapes that make us. It's all about shapes and patterns. And consequently, almost everything we do can be expressed in shapes and patterns.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, that was geek-tastic!

tryanmax said...

And not to be demeaning, but I think of a law degree as just a rather specific type of communication degree, so it is no stretch at all to say that our communication society is run by people with communication degrees, be they in law, journalism, or general comm.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That doesn't surprise me. Life is about trade offs and you really can't ever have it all.

But in terms of Hollywood, these are the things people don't understand. They mistakenly believe that Hollywood wants to serve 100% of the market... they don't. They have segmented the market and they are going for the segment that maximizes profit. And part of that equation involves avoiding doing more than you have to to satisfy those people.

It sounds cynical when people say things like that, but that's how the world works. You pick your target and then you try to do just enough to satisfy your goal but nothing more because more is a waste.

And since most people don't know the difference between cliches and non-cliches, Hollywood doesn't worry about trying to impress those who do.

AndrewPrice said...

Geek-tastic! LOL!

On law degrees, I would actually disagree. You're working from the pop-culture view of lawyers which is litigators. Most lawyers probably 95% will never see a courtroom. Most lawyers are bureaucrats in one form or another. And what law school teaches you is actually similar to a logic degree. You learn how to take a text, parse it and comprehend the meaning of each part, and then determine a course of action for your company/client based on your analysis. For example, should we form an S-corp or a partnership.

Litigators are the ones who need to learn to communicate -- both in writing and orally. And communicationg isn't something they actually teach you in law school. That's something you have to learn yourself through trial and error (no pun intended).

tryanmax said...

The logic aspect is actually what I had in mind when I made the comparison.

I know me some lawyers. I know what they's up to.

AndrewPrice said...

Most people don't, they think all lawyers go to court. But the reality is most end up administering contracts or preparing tax filings. Some end up in prison. . . but not enough.

tryanmax said...

A sidetrack on the communication topic, one giant peeve of mine is when I have a disagreement and the other party bolsters his argument with his age instead of something relevant. Most of the time it doesn't even make sense.

Me: Don't be so pessimistic.
Other guy: I'm not pessimistic. I'm 77 years old!
Me: Huh?

And, yes, this did just happen to me recently.

tryanmax said...

Knowing what it is that most lawyers actually do is what caused me to resist the numerous urgings I've had to become a lawyer.

I've also been told I should be a pastor. Does anybody else find it disturbing that the people who know me would think I'm equally suited to either profession?

T-Rav said...

tryanmax, not really. Although the job of pastor is far different from that of lawyer in some ways--most notably, pastors are presumed to have a nonzero chance of getting into heaven--they have many similar features. Both require the ability to make well-crafted arguments, persuasiveness, and giving good counsel. Actually, I think I remember a 48 Hours episode on a corrupt Texas lawyer who considered going into the ministry as a child. Not a huge surprise, when you think about it.

AndrewPrice said...

You know what's funny, I get that too once in a while -- people say things like "I'm 70, I know what I'm talking about." Uh, no. Stupid knows no age limit.

On people knowing what you should be, I've always been amazed how wrong people are about their friends and associates. I see it all the time where they have no idea what their friends' skills are, their comfort levels, or even their taste in mates. Of course, many of these people are equally blind about themselves too.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, If you don't care about sincerity, then lawyers would make excellent pastors. . . or dictators or lab rats.

Good lawyers are "flexible."

tryanmax said...

Well, I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up. Perhaps I'll have it sorted before my kids are out of college. That still gives me about 20 years. More if they go into medicine.

Individualist said...


That is preety much the shape of it.


On the law I think there is two parts. One part my profession plays a small role in (I am an auditor) and that is the role of the Sheep Dog. The goal of the sheep dog is to keep the wolves at bay. You are to analyze the situation, determine the relevant risks (legal and otherwise) and choose the best course of action to protect the sheep (the company or client you work for).

The other part of the law are what I call the wolves. I am not sure if you are in that realm but these would be the ambulance chasers, the lawyers who litigate and go after plaintiffs, the defense lawyers, the prosecutors, etc. Not all of this is as you say done in the court room. I know their are many lawyers who litigate cases that work to settle and when they can't had the work off to a litigator.

Both the sheep dog and the wolf have the same tools, fangs, claws, swift legs but they use them for different purposes. So the lawyers have communication, report writing, logic, an understanding of the code which they can use for either purpose.

Just my thoughts.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, That's plenty of time to figure things out!

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, I'm been mainly on the wolf side, though I've done both sides.

rlaWTX said...

I didn't really have any opinions about this subject beyond chuckling at the conversation til near the end of the comments:
**self-aware cliches like Expendables - I think that's one of the reasons I really love that movie. They are treating their material as "real" but not taking it too seriously. [I'm sure you knew that Statham is the other reason.]
**pastors vs lawyers - I am the daughter of a pastor and friend of several lawyers. usually the PK (preacher's kid) gets the hate, not the pastor! But I have to agree that in the more "independent church" denominations, pastors can make excellent dictators! another lawyer-pastor cross-over... and the lawyers I know (married) - he is a corporate, non-litigating attorney and the she is a stay-at-home, classical ed home-schooling mom. She's more wolfie than he is, I think. ;)

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, I like The Expendables for the same reason -- it was a ridiculous movie that knew it was ridiculous and had a good time with it.

On the lawyer/dictator thing, just to clarify, I'm not saying pastors = dictators, I'm just saying lawyers would make excellent dictators and they would make excellent pastors provided you don't require your pastor to have any particular faith in anything... lawyers seem to be particularly good in seeing all sides.

I've met many corporate lawyers who are wolves, though I've also met many who are sheep or sheepdogs. But I've never met a litigator who isn't a wolf -- very aggressive people. In fact, I've long suspected that if you breed two litigators, you're likely to get a super villain for a child. ;)

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