Image contrast to emphasize speech
Strong image contrast stresses the audience by straining their eyes. In return, not only does the audience relate their tension to the action and characters onscreen, but they also focus more on sound as their visual channel is saturated. If no specific action is ongoing — i.e. nothing changes much visually — but some important words are heard, their attention will instinctively drift towards sound. In Adding contrast – Hidden messages, in an excerpt from Thelma and Louise, we saw a crisp image contrast collaborating with sound to give new meaning to a shot. Let’s dig this up and explore a little further.
In Gandhi (R. Attenborough, 1982), Gandhi, in his second public address, condemns a new law promulgated by the English occupier. His speech, moderately deferential at first, turns crude. To emphasize this shift, a broader shot lets a lamp enter the frame, straining our eyes. Visual tension makes us feel how much his words strike the audience.
“Under this act, our wives and mothers are whores and every man here is a bastard.”
In Thelma and Louise (R. Scott, 1991), a barmaid is being questioned by police on a crime scene. She thinks Thelma and Louise are innocent but feels she isn’t heard. As a last resort, she makes her very clear about it, empowering her speech with a contrasting background of out of focus flashing lights (see Adding contrast – Bokeh).
“Neither of those two was the murdering type, Hal.”
Elementary, my dear Watson
In BBC’s Sherlock series of A Study in Pink (C. Giedroyc, 2010), here is how Sherlock presents himself to Watson:
“The name’s Sherlock Holmes and the address is 221B Baker Street.”
The contrast between his relatively dark shape and the light wall empowers his words.
Interestingly enough, the same technique was used in Young Sherlock Holmes (B. Levinson, 1985). Only this time, the bright surface — the snowy compound of the university — is blocking the back of the actor’s figure instead of the front.
“Holmes. Sherlock Holmes.”
If important words are to be delivered along with quiet action, stressing the audience’s eyes with strong image contrast ensures that the message is heard loud and clear.