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LOOK BOOKS: Using Visual Shorthand to Sell Your Script

Award-winning screenwriter, novelist, and short story writer Jon James Miller explains how utilizing a Look Book for your latest project might be the key to get a buyer interested in your work.
jon miller spirit

One of my fondest memories of film school was taking a class called Acting for Film Directors with Professor Arthur Lithgow while attending Ithaca College in upstate New York. Arthur, father of actor John Lithgow, was a great teacher and by then in his mid-70s. The class was required for all film production majors, and none of us had ever taken an acting class before in our lives. In his very first class, Professor Lithgow told the room of aspiring film directors that cinema was a visual language and that he was going to teach us how to clearly communicate with our film actors. Then, in an exercise to loosen us all up, he looked over and pointed to me.

“Now, Mr. Miller,” he said, “would you please get on the floor and show us your interpretation of an amoeba.” 

With all eyes on me, I nervously proceeded to get down on my back on the ground and began to writhe in a spasmodic pantomime of a spineless blob. Arthur and the rest of the class looked down on me for a moment in silence, then everyone broke out in gales of laughter.

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“Because of his utter fealty to my direction,” Professor Lithgow said, smiling, “Mr. Miller has earned himself an “A” for this class. All the rest of you amoebas are on your own.”

I’m not sure why Arthur picked me out that day but he was good to his word. And for the rest of the semester, whenever there was a test or a pop-quiz, Arthur and I would sit out in the hallway and just talk. I remember him telling me that it wasn’t the words on the page that made a production come to life but rather the images hidden within those words, and the litany of craftsmen and women who toiled in anonymity to reveal them—all at the direction of the writer.

I asked Professor Lithgow once how a screenwriter could best convey their “cinematic vision” to the reader.

“Cheat,” he said. “Use images from films that have inspired you. Cut and paste together pictures from magazines. Draw, if you have that talent. Do whatever you can the best way you can to show what you envision and trust the talent you’ve chosen to surround yourself with to take it the rest of the way.”

Professor Lithgow passed away in 2004 at the age of 88. And even though he gave me an easy-A back at Ithaca, I remember learning more from him than any of my other film professors. He taught me to rely on emotion rather than structure and images rather than words to convey my stories. The words would come later, after I hooked an audience with the visuals and the emotions—and that’s how I came to rely on Look Books to pitch my film properties.

Look Books are becoming more and more popular with screenwriters and filmmakers in Hollywood. Also known as a “pitch deck,” they convey the look and feel of your story’s universe, of your main characters, and the essential details that populate that world. They are a visual shorthand to communicating the impact of your unique, cinematic storytelling talent. Most importantly, they contain the essence of what makes your particular cinematic vision stand out from the thousands of other potential film properties being shopped every year in Hollywood and around the world.

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A Look Book will never take the place of a well-executed screenplay but give a potential buyer context and inspiration while reading your work. To create one, I begin to select from thousands of images I have collected over the years, ones that fired my imagination and initially inspired me to write. For my current script, an original animation property called Professor Pepper’s Ghost, I set about looking for early photographs, paintings, and newspaper illustrations created during the Victorian age. I hit paydirt when I found a painting by George Roux entitled Spirit completed in 1885. Not only was the work public domain, but it also perfectly captured the atmosphere and milieu of my period Christmas ghost story script. Once I had found that initial image, I set about building the rest of my Look Book with complementary images around it, both original and others repurposed from other sources.

The great thing about a Look Book is that, because you’re not selling the Look Book itself but rather the script you’ve written, you can use any and every image you can find no matter how famous or obscure. Under U.S. copyright law, “fair use” lets you use any image for non-commercial purposes, and as long as you’re not selling your Look Book—there is no need to secure the underlying rights to these images, or the likeness of any famous actors (alive or dead) that you’re enlisting as a visual reference in service to your new cinematic vision. Think of it as scrapbooking but instead of for Mom and Dad, it’s for a studio executive, director, producer, or A-list actor to get them hooked on your work.

For years, I’ve collected Look Books of other screenwriters and filmmakers, some from properties that sold but many more from properties that never made it into theaters. I consider each of them as unfinished masterpieces—fever dreams of original films that remained in the imagination of their would-be creators. Many are like unfinished paintings, where you can still see the canvas and study the brushstrokes at the edges. They remind me that I can never take for granted someone on the other side of the desk, coffee table, or zoom call will understand what I am trying to explain in so many words. Even the most carefully selected words or verbal pitch pales in comparison to the ability of one powerful image’s ability to remain in the mind.

Still, another reason to take the time to create a compelling Look Book and go that extra mile in sharing your “cinematic vision” is that it will help you as a writer to further define the conception of your story more than any script page ever could. Too many brilliant screenplays never get read before they die at the bottom of an overworked film executive’s slush-pile. As a novelist, I know that a book cover is worth its weight in gold when it comes to getting someone to read the words waiting inside. I believe the same holds true for a script that comes with a Look Book. For the simple reason that when presented with a script that comes with a “visual index” and another that doesn’t, which one do you think a script reader would pick up first?

So, next time you begin to market a script that you’ve invested years of blood, sweat, and tears to perfect—why not see if you can “cheat” the line, in the words of Professor Lithgow, with a book that shares your vision? Whether an animation or live-action, horror, drama, or comedy, every property can benefit from being fleshed-out with inspiring images that convey the characters, setting, story, and even plot devices central to your script. A Look Book might just get a buyer to open and then actually read your screenplay—and you won’t even have to lie on the ground and writhe around like an amoeba to get that easy-A.

Learn more from Jon James Miller with his OnDemand class Art of The Sale: How to Build a Look Book That Will Sell Your Script

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