There’s a big difference between great movies and bad ones. In a great movie, you can point to one or more scenes that define what that movie is about. In bad movies, you’re just watching scenes and images that leave no impression and fade from memory as quickly as you leave the theater.
One Pixar guideline in every movie is to create an iconic image that summarizes the encapsulates the meaning of the movie. In “Finding Nemo,” that scene is where the father, Marlin, finds the one egg left uneaten by the barracuda. In “WALL-E,” that image is when the WALL-E robot watches an old videotape movie of two people holding hands. In “Up,” that iconic image is we see the house floating away underneath thousands of balloons.
Pixar executives said that they actually got this idea from watching Stanley Kuprick movies. In “2001,” that iconic image is where the caveman throws his bone in the air and it morphs into a spaceship drifting through outer space. In “The Shining,” the blood rushing out of the elevator shaft is another iconic image that summarizes the movie in a single image.
Think of every great movie and it’s loaded with similar “gotcha” moments that never leave your memory. In “Alien,” nobody can forget the face hugger alien leaping out and latching itself around the astronaut’s face. In “Star Wars,” everyone remembers Luke swinging across a chasm to save Princess Leia as well as Darth Vader fighting with a light saber.
Now think of a bad movie and what images stand out in your mind as something memorable in a positive way? Bad movies have lots of bad but memorable images. So when creating your own screenplay, think in terms of iconic images that will burn into a viewer’s mind and summarize your story in an instant.
Like the face hugger in “Alien,” the gushing blood in “The Shining,” or even Slim Pickens waving a cowboy hat as he rides an atom bomb to the ground in “Dr. Strangelove,” there’s always one image that makes a great movie stand out. If a movie doesn’t have an iconic image, chances are good that it’s probably not great.
Now where does your screenplay fit in?