Words That Fly Off The Page: The New Relationship Between Print and Visual Media
Words That Fly Off The Page: The New Relationship Between Print and Visual Media
Print communication isn’t dead, but challenges exist for book and comic book authors, as well as newspaper and magazine journalists, to get their messages across to readers who have so many high-tech options to receive information and entertainment. Filmmakers and visual communicators can utilize print media as tools; and create additional products to bring their works to an expanded audience. We’ll use tips and past successes to show you how.
Anyone involved in media, entertainment and advertising as a professional, student or industry observer knows that 21st century communications is visually oriented to a greater degree than at any time in history. Audio-visual communication is probably a more correct label, even though the first impact is nearly always visual, with the audio providing necessary enhancement and details. Yet, written communication has also taken on added importance as more people than ever communicate with each other through the written word by engaging in messaging and social media posts.
I will spare those reading this piece a recitation of relevant communication theory axioms except to stress one particularly important observation. Studies have shown that people learn in four different ways; reading, audio stimulation, visual stimulation and conceptually. All these methods have been in existence for thousands of years. Even before the advent of written languages, cave painting and hieroglyphs formed picture stories that some anthropologists classify as reading. In the 20th century, audio-visual stimulation caught up to reading as the centuries old concept of play acting was turned into a mass communication experience with the advent of motion picture “talkies.” Technology has turned this simple beginning into a variety of audio-visual experiences.
Some would argue that what was left behind in this explosion of audio-visual technology is conceptual learning and its important component, imagination. The forms of communication that commit everything to the senses limit the need to imagine and interpret what is experienced. Longer and deeper presentations offer greater opportunities for conceptualization and interpretation. Presentations that are multi-media; or those that cross from one presentation medium to another increase conceptual learning and understanding.
Most of you reading this are filmmakers or want to create some manner of art in the visual and interactive media. You want your audience – whether the audience consists of financiers or collaborators in the preliminary or production phases, or final audiences for the finished product – to understand what you are trying to communicate; maybe even interpret and share it. That’s the conceptual learning process that goes beyond just seeing and hearing. The printed word can be a tool in this process, and perhaps even a product; something you can make money with.
The most basic use of the written word in the process is the screenplay and all its ancillary forms such as treatment, story outline and synopsis. Original screenplays don’t have their own intrinsic value (except to collectors in some cases) so are really a tool most of the time. But some also get published for learning and, again, collection.
Adapted screenplays come from other media. For most of the history of movie making these adapted screenplays came from bringing books to the screen. From the classics to modern novelists such as Stephen King, Tom Clancy and J. K. Rowling, for example, published books have provided characters and storylines for hundreds of movies and TV shows.
Publication gives a work three things: validity, a following and monetary return. The last two are obvious and time-tested. Validity comes from the ability for a work to be held in the hand, sit on a bookshelf at a store or library and generally, validate its importance as an object regardless of its content. If the content is good, the validity is even greater. Most adaptations are fictional accounts written and published as books by novelists. Some unlikely non-fiction books can make it to the big or small screen (Chicken Soup for the Soul spawned a dramatic TV series). Short stories published in magazines, newspaper articles and also comic strips (remember Blondie and Dick Tracy, Peanuts and Dilbert?) have long been fodder for screen adaptations. One of many short works adapted to the screen, and a personal favorite of mine, is A Boy and His Dog, a 1975 independent feature film based on Harlan Ellison’s novella of the same name.
Graphic novels and comic books have really exploded as publications that fly off the page and onto the screen. And look how they make life so easy for the production designer, costume designer and special effects make-up artist – visual ideas galore! But they still need dialogue and descriptions of the action to make them work. The comic book characters of Stan Lee and other comic book innovators were works turned out by a printing press long before they graced the large and small screen. And those printed comic books, vintage and new, continue to be in great demand today.
Though most of the adapted books and other printed works that make it to the screen are fictional, non-fiction works have flourished as well. Biographies are time-tested works that are frequently used as a basis for movies and series. Sometimes film biographies are made from original screenplays, bypassing the book phase, but this is usually when the subject is well known and has been written about a lot. It is unlikely that few people outside L. A.’s skid row would have known the full story of Nathaniel Ayers without Los Angeles Times journalist Steve Lopez’s series of newspaper articles and the book, made into the excellent 2009 film, The Soloist. Even well-known biographies, such as that of the Manson Family, would not have translated as well to the resulting group of screen adaptations without details, in this case revealed by lead prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi in his book Helter Skelter.
Occasionally the content flows the other direction. This was the case in my introduction to print authorship when I was commissioned to co-write a history and battlefield guide based on the TV and home video series Smithsonian’s Great Battles of the Civil War which I wrote and directed. Since that time I have written a number of books, graphic histories and dozens of magazine articles, producing much print material while continuing to document in film and digital media.
You may have the opportunity to produce a documentary which then has a logical print application as a history, guidebook, or cookbook. Even narrative filmmakers have and can continue to get into print by publishing behind the scenes works on a film’s production, or writing a work driven by the same subject. Robert Rodriguez wrote about his early filmmaking experience in Rebel Without A Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker with $7000 Became a Hollywood Player. He then co-wrote, with Frank Miller, a book on the making of Frank Miller’s Sin City in Frank Miller’s Sin City: The Making of the Movie. (Brand name recognition reinforced!) Since children’s books are always in demand, any animated or live action children’s program can be turned into a coloring book, activity book or reading aid. Need evidence of this? Two words: Sesame Street.
"Smithsonian’s Great Battles of the Civil War" that I Wrote and Directed
Aunt Sally, your high school drama teacher and yes, even potential financiers of your next project, would rather see your film reviewed in The New York Times, Variety or your local newspaper than in a blog on Deadline (although those are important too). Collect as many copies of the actual publications as you can get your hands on and make reprints for those that miss the original publication.
Here’s a tip to keep track of all the print and online reviews of your finished film. Set up a Google News search to notify you via email when any reference to it appears on the World Wide Web. If you title isn’t very specific, however, you may also receive notification about a lot of related news so try to customize the search as much as possible.
You can help yourself throughout production by keeping social media channels focused on your project. Even the large print news media outlets keep track of the social “buzz” of film production. The more “hits” and “likes” you get, the more they will take note.
No single example comes to mind at the moment, but there are bound to be self-published books out there that have been adapted for movie theaters, TV and streaming. Digital printing has made self-publishing affordable for those who don’t have easy access to traditional publishers or literary agents. Be sure you make enough copies for yourself, family, friends and potential backers of your project. Normally, sending self-published books to reviewers is not recommended – there are so few of them now – but entry into book awards competitions and exposure at book festivals (along with social media campaigns) might just get them coming to you.
And don’t scrimp on the cover design. It’s always a good idea to leave that to a professional since that’s what most people will see. This is one place where a picture is worth a thousand words.
So whether you are struggling to write a screenplay, like Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd. (1950), or struggling to write a novel, like Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys (2000), imagination and perseverance are the keys to success in achieving your published, and visual production, dreams.
About the Author
Jay Wertz has produced content for all popular media platforms, from films for theater and television audiences to award-winning hard-cover books. He recently completed a 45-year career in Hollywood working for nearly every major studio in post-production and at the same time producing and directing...