I'm looking for visual conventions for portraying a scene as imagined, fantasized or dreamed-up rather than real.
January 4, 2012 11:23 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for visual conventions for portraying a scene (e.g. in a movie or comic) as imaginary, dreamed-up or "all in the head" of one of the characters.

So for example:
  • In American movies you can surround an "imaginary" scene with the wobbly-screen fade that was parodied in Wayne's World.
  • In American print comics, you can draw the borders of an "imaginary" panel with the same scalloped line that goes around thought bubbles.
What are some other examples, either from film, comics or "non-sequential art" like painting or sculpture? Bonus points for examples from other historical periods, or examples that are mostly used outside the US.

If you know of anything I could read that discusses this sort of thing, I'd like to see that too. (I already know about Scott McCloud, and I'll be re-reading his stuff for sure — but I don't remember him discussing this specific question.)
posted by nebulawindphone to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
the character looking up, and the camera panning up and fading slowly into the dream scene
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:27 AM on January 4, 2012

Sometimes in film or TV there's no indication whatsoever that a scene is a dream/fantasy until there's a sudden quick cut back to the fantasizing character in the same position as when the sequence began, usually with a dazed look on their face. This happens in High Fidelity and numerous times in Six Feet Under.

There's a fantasy sequence early in The Brave Little Toaster which is marked by extra-bright colors and outlandish topiary strewn around to indicate "not actually happening." I think I've seen the topiary thing in other cartoons but I can't name a specific example.
posted by theodolite at 11:39 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

  • Color washing or brightening - in this era of digital grading, even easier to achieve

  • Odd music - tinny piano or loopy repetitive that fades back into background noise when coming out (I know you said visual but I've seen it represented in comic)

  • Characters in odd dress or character - either more neat or disheveled than usual or behaving out of character more "normal" or massive stereo type of normal

  • Unusual external sounds - birds, traffic, crowd overwhelming (I know you said visual but I've seen it represented in comic)

  • Different angles - looking up from a child's perspective at a fish-eyed reality

  • Distorted / missing background / rough sketch

  • Historically, I'm thinking of pantomime sets or dioramas with ordinary people dressed up as imaginary/historical people

  • In stage craft I've seen smoke or long wavy silks at knee level (along with lighting changes) to show fantasy or dream

  • posted by tilde at 11:42 AM on January 4, 2012

    posted by humboldt32 at 12:02 PM on January 4, 2012

    In comics, very often you'll see "dream sequence inserts" that are drawn by a completely different artist and/or in a completely different style, 180 degrees from the "base" style of the book. A gritty, realistic flavor vs. a cartoony, sketched style, for example.

    In 30 Rock, there was a sequence where we saw the world through Kenneth's eyes, and it turns out that he sees everything as if it were portrayed by the Muppets.
    posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:39 PM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

    In David Cronenberg's version of The Dead Zone, the main character has a vision of a burning room with a child in it. What's striking about this scene is that the main character, who begins the scene in a hospital bed, appears in the vision itself, lying in the child's bed. YT clip.

    In several films and TV shows, such as Waterland and BBC's Sherlock, there is a convention of a person describing a scene, but as the person is describing it, the scene happens around the explainer, with the listeners sometimes also appearing in the scene as participants.

    In Stir of Echoes, the actress who played the ghost was a ballerina. She recorded her scenes by moving very, very slowly, and this was then sped up to make her appear to be moving jerkily at normal speed.
    posted by Sticherbeast at 1:06 PM on January 4, 2012

    Response by poster: Hmm. Sorry to be all thinking out loud in the middle of my own thread. But it looks like there are two kinds of answers cropping up here.

    First kind: "The events in this scene are totally unrealistic and bizarre. Ghosts! People flying! Everything is purple for some reason! It must be a dream or a hallucination or something, because that shit never happens in real life."

    Second kind: "This events in this scene are perfectly normal and mundane. Oh, but the artist used XYZ visual technique. That means we're looking at the contents of someone's imagination, even though this kind of shit totally could have happened in real life."

    The second kind is what I'm looking for — ways of marking an otherwise normal or realistic scene as Not Really Happening.
    posted by nebulawindphone at 1:25 PM on January 4, 2012

    Response by poster: Of course, it's sometimes complicated what counts as "otherwise normal or realistic" in a fantasy-type setting, or in comics/animation. Maybe I should have said "plausible within the fictional world" or something like that. You get the idea.
    posted by nebulawindphone at 1:28 PM on January 4, 2012

    In Dexter they use soft-focus for the scenes where he's talking to his dead father.
    posted by JoanArkham at 1:28 PM on January 4, 2012

    In comics I've also seen it where the panel fades out into a cloud-like effect at the edges... unfortunately I cannot cite examples at the moment.
    posted by rocketpup at 1:34 PM on January 4, 2012

    In the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies, they use ramped, extreme close-up, hard cut cinematography to indicate that Holmes is imagining events going through his head. Ramping and such are used in other sequences, but there is a specific level of ramping and the other stuff that they use for the Holmes-is-thinking sequences.

    In one of the Agent Cody Banks movies - YES, I'VE SEEN BOTH - they actually use black and white to indicate the main character imagining a hypothetical scene.

    In the first Mission: Impossible movie, if I recall correctly, Brian De Palma has an interesting set-up. On one side of the screen, a higher-up is lying about the circumstances behind agents' deaths to Tom Cruise; on the other side of the screen, Tom Cruise imagines things as they probably actually happened.

    De Palma also uses pacing and wide lenses in his dream sequences, such as in Dressed to Kill. Not merely slow motion, but having the the scene itself, including the actors themselves, move more slowly.

    In Inception, each layer of the dream has its own identifiable color scheme. (Also, stepping aside from visual cues for a moment, the score itself winds itself into coils as each level of the dream has its own identifiable theme, complete with parts of the theme acting as a strange sort of fugue. The "WHOMP WHOMP BRRRRM" sound actually comes from a highly slowed-down version of Edith Piaf's "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien." Composer Hans Zimmer claims that he read Gödel, Escher, Bach for inspiration.
    posted by Sticherbeast at 1:39 PM on January 4, 2012

    In the dream sequences in the game Max Payne 2, the player's controls were deliberately muddy, preventing smooth movement. Where at one point you were smoothly dodging bullets, suddenly you couldn't walk down a hall without bumping into furniture.
    posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:58 PM on January 4, 2012

    In Lost, not dreaming, perhaps,
    opening with a closeup of someone's eye.
    posted by coevals at 3:12 PM on January 4, 2012

    Visuals only? No audio? Because you can also have echoing sound or unnaturally dead audio.

    The movie Anamorph shot flashbacks without the film gate.

    You may also find some examples in one of Will Eisner's books. He tended towards more specific examples than McCloud and less broad theorizing.

    And as an aside, because it's a pet peeve of mine, these "visual conventions" you're asking for could be called tropes in film studies, though certain corners of the internet have been doing their best to hijack the word for their own purposes.
    posted by RobotHero at 3:48 PM on January 4, 2012

    You also see the camera tilted to the side to make a disorienting diagonal frame, or distortion of the image so that is stretches into one corner of the frame, to indicate a nightmare or hallucination.
    posted by dave99 at 4:55 PM on January 4, 2012

    “With animation, there are many cases where the style is already fixed,” [Satoshi] Kon said in an interview in Manga Max magazine. “When you get wavy lines on the screen, it means that you’re entering a dream sequence, or the scene switches to sepia tones, or cream flows onto the top of the coffee, creating a whirlpool, or there is a close-up of someone’s eyes.”
    posted by pimli at 4:55 PM on January 4, 2012

    Also similar to the "wobbly screen fade" you mentioned, I've seen an effect where the center of the image is in focus but the edges are stretched out and blurry, to indicate a dream.
    posted by dave99 at 4:56 PM on January 4, 2012

    I can't recall specific examples off the top of my head, but I've seen sequences where the set is noticeably minimalist and everything outside of it (especially windows) is nothing but pure white light.
    posted by Rhaomi at 7:09 PM on January 4, 2012

    This is sort of a variation on the scalloped-panels idea, but: sometimes Japanese comics (at least; maybe others too, but I don't know) will use a black or toned gutter (contrasting with the usual white gutter) to indicate that certain panels or pages are a dream or fantasy or flashback. This works especially well when it isn't immediately obvious that this is going on, and you only notice the effect once the dream ends.

    Also, maybe this is too obvious, but one rather old convention is simply to show the dream superimposed on the "real world", usually with the sleeping dreamer towards the bottom of the image and the dream towards the top. (The parts of the image representing "the dream" are also often differentiated by use of lighter colors, translucent effects, etc.) For example.
    posted by No-sword at 9:03 PM on January 4, 2012

    The Buffy episode "Restless" is a series of dream sequences; each starts with a slow zoom onto the sleeping face of the person whose dream we're about to watch.

    Another common thing is to see the sleeper's environment intruding into the dream: alarm clocks, beeping hospital monitors, etc. That's probably more narrative technique than visual though, at least most of the time. Still, it could be used as a cue to the attentive viewer/reader.
    posted by I've a Horse Outside at 11:39 PM on January 4, 2012

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