When I was at CalArts, there was a really great moment when it suddenly occurred to me how to communicate and see something from outside myself.

I was in a class—yes, I know, shocking—I’m not sure which class, but the assignment was to create something horrific.  Many students created images filled with frightening subject matters, blood, fear, horror, all the aspects of something most people would agree to define as “horror” in the viewer.  Well, one student returned with an image of a vase of daisies.  Really pretty ones, bathed in sunlight on a perfectly nice day.

The teacher chastised the student for failing the assignment, but I kept wondering if this vase of pretty daisies wasn’t somehow the most accurate illustration of something horrific.  In defense of the artwork, the student confessed to the teacher (in front of the entire class) of having been brutally raped as a younger adult.  And during the attack, the only item in their field of vision was this pretty vase of daisies.

The teacher consoled the student, and commended the courage it must have taken to conquer those deepest, most horrific moments, in order to create the artwork, but said that it was still a failure.  A failure?  Naturally the rest of us spoke up, in defense of the abused student.

But the teacher simply said, “think about it from the point of view of the viewer.  What does the viewer see?  It doesn’t matter what the maker is thinking if he or she doesn’t communicate that to the audience.”  The teacher was right.  None of us knew how horrific the daisies were until we knew the whole story.

There are a variety of ways the artist in question could have communicated this in a clear way.  Even while keeping the sunshine and pretty daisies, maybe add a crack in the vase, with a little blood dripping out.  Or, paint the attack in the background, hidden in the shadows, so that we don’t immediately see the attack on first glance.  There are numerous ways to show it horrifically.

In this case, the artwork was a failure.  Although the student’s intent was there, the student didn’t communicate it.  It really taught me how to see something from another person’s point of view.  When I create a film, I’m thinking about how a scene feels from a variety of angles.  Or, how certain people will respond to certain things.  Learning how to do this has helped me a great deal.  Here’s the lesson:

The meaning of communication is what the other person hears—not what you say.

It’s true in art, in film, and it’s true in life.  Understanding that sentence will be like discovering a top-secret document, or a hidden treasure.  Just try it out and see what I mean.

I worked with a PR person once who was a horrible communicator.  His focus was inward; his objectives were to hear himself speak, to say what HE needed to say.  So from his point of view, his communications were a success.  And when someone wouldn’t respond to him, it was always that other person’s fault.  Never his.

I often told him the meaning of communication is what the other person hears—not what you say; and I asked him how he could change his communication in order to get what he wanted.  He’d look at me like I was speaking a language from outer space.  In the end, I decided to work with someone else.  Sometimes people are so far in their own head it’s impossible to help them get out.  I hope this isn’t the case with you.

Every person is different.  Actors, designers, clients, friends, neighbors… Each person takes in different words in different ways.  If you can learn how to go outside of yourself, imagine the other person’s perspective of what you’re saying, or what you’re showing them, it will change the way you communicate.  It dissolves stress, misunderstandings, and evaporates conflict.  And it’ll make you, and those around you, a lot happier.

5 thoughts on “FILMMAKING INTENT

  1. The meaning of communication that you pointed out reminds me of an old quote that I read a few times over: “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” Although that particular quote has more of an action-speaks-louder-than-words meaning, I liken it to your filmmaking points with regards to making sure that the viewer’s interpretation of an item, line of dialogue, image, action etc. matches up with what we are trying to convey…by approaching the image from their point of view rather than ours.

    I can understand what you mean and have tried to apply it when communicating with others in filmmaking and non-filmmaking environments. It hasn’t been easy but its usually, if not always, worthwhile to practice, especially since, as you pointed out, it helps to get both parties on the same page with regards to how a scene or image is going to be delivered to the viewer.

  2. Good article. What, then, have been some ways you’ve effectively gotten your point across to your viewers through visuals in your films? What is the trick to imply a certain viewpoint rather than having the audience infer it?

  3. Very interesting article! Since I have a degree in journalism I had the whole sender-message-receiver thing hammered into my head during uni 🙂 Nowadays, I bounce my stuff off other people and when they go “huuuh?” chances are what I’m saying is more like a mumbling in my head than an actual utterance of meaning. And I go back to the drawing board.
    Very rarely one person will not get something but everyone else does – then it’s time to try to figure out whether the miscommunication perhaps happens with that one singular receiver and not with the sender or the message.

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