What Is Visual Subtext and How Can You Use It to Add Depth to Your Film?
Subtext: subtle but oh so powerful.
For cinephiles, watching movies is kind of like going on a treasure hunt. Sure, you watch the story unfold like any normal moviegoer, but you're also always on the lookout for little clues and easter eggs that might be trying to give you special information about the narrative. Films, namely if they're created by a clever filmmaker, are full of symbolism—sometimes it's used to foreshadow imminent events, sometimes it's used to draw parallels, but perhaps its most important job is to provide subtext.
Subtext can be one of the more difficult narrative constructs to grasp, let alone use effectively, but Alex Buono, former SNL DP and current director of Documentary Now!, offers an excellent explanation of it in his MZed course The Art of Visual Storytelling. Lucky for us Film Riot has released that particular portion of the course so you can view it for free. Check it out below:
Subtext is one of the most effective and efficient ways of adding depth to your story. It doesn't take up any additional screen time the way a long expositional scene would nor does it require heavy-handed information that takes viewers out of the narrative experience.
You work it into the very fabric of your story: it's the color red in The Sixth Sense, it's that scene in Sideways when Miles describes his favorite wine (but is really describing himself), it's the constant comparison between Batman and The Joker in The Dark Knight. Or, you know, it's this:
There is a difference between narrative subtext and visual subtext, both of which are important, and since Buono offers up a lot of great instruction on the visual side, here is a little information on the narrative side.
If you're trying to sit down at some point today and practice writing subtext, it's really just a matter of taking, say, a block of dialogue and cutting it down to the bone. How would you write this scene between a father and son?
The son is a gifted athlete but his father is an emotionally unavailable hard ass, especially since the death of the boy's mother. The two are driving home from the big game in which the son scored the winning touchdown.
Now, you know you want to give your audience some information about the relationship between the son and father, as well as how the son feels inadequate in the eyes of his father, but how do you go about conveying that? What kind of conversation would the two have? What exact words would they say? What actions would each take during the ride home?
Without context, the son might say something like this:
"You know, ever since mom died you've been a real asshole to me. You never talk to me! You never ask me how I'm doing! When you get home, all you do is stare at the TV. I want a relationship with you; I want you to be a part of my life. Mainly, I just want you to be proud of me."
Total shit, right? But if you add subtext, the scene can become an informative, even poetic piece of storytelling. Literally, this scene could just be ten seconds of them driving home in silence and it would say everything that the scene without context said, but in a much better way. And there are many other avenues you can take to add subtext, including costuming, set design, cinematography, and pretty much any other cinematic tool. The father having a wrinkled shirt and five o'clock shadow can indicate that he is no longer with his wife (old fashioned, I know). The fact that the two aren't even conversing after the son's big win indicates that 1.) the relationship is critically fractured, 2.) the father is unable or unwilling to express emotion, and 3.) the son desires his father's attention and approval.
Play around with it and you'll start to get the hang of it. A great exercise is writing a scene between two characters in which one character knows something damning about the other without including any dialogue. Try it!
Also, if you're interested in learning more from Alex Buono, his course is on MZed right now. It's pretty pricey at $300 ($350 if you want to own a copy), but check it out and see if you're into it.