Does your movie have a Red Herring? Understanding production and movie terms can help a new or veteran cinematographer understand the types and motivations of shots, and how the characters interact within a movie. It's also fun to gain geeky insider knowledge of movie stuff.
Thu, 02/14/2013 - 4:33pm
Last week we talked about the movie term McGuffin - which describes an object, being or place that is the purpose of a character's quest, or which can trigger a character's actions. We learned that R2-D2, although playing a seemingly small role in Star Wars - A New Hope, had a significant part in the storyline, as his whole purpose was the motivator that got things moving - he was the movie's McGuffin. Director Alfred Hitchcock coined the term, and used a McGuffin often in his movies.
This week let's talk about another term that is also fun and functional - and sometimes, a bit annoying. Although a McGuffin is a relatively unknown term by many outsiders, a Red Herring might be one of those movie terms many people heard about, but its purpose is more subtle. It's a trick - don't go down that dark alley, the writer or cinematographer put it there to fool you, it doesn't pan out.
What is a Red Herring?
A fish - right? A red smelly fish, to be more descriptive, which is why the phrase was coined in movie terms vernacular. When the fish is smoked, it takes on a red color and pungent stench. So, when you think of a scene and wonder why a prop, person or location was introduced, it might seem "fishy" or "smelly" to you - in other words, like it doesn't fit, and so it might be a Red Herring. I said "might", because it might be nothing at all.
A Red Herring is a design in books or movies to take the audience off the scent of the real culprit and to plant doubt for the audience. The book or movie is usually in the thriller or mystery genre, meant to divert you from guessing the villain's purpose or identity until the end of the story. The red herring can be a suspect in a murder mystery, or a seemingly innocent character - right up to the end. Or a red herring can be something that the audience believes to be significant to discovering the puzzle, and turn out to be nothing at all.
Red Herring Movie Examples
Kindergarden Cop -
The Bodyguard - In this movie, Rachel Marron (Whitney Houston) is a high-profile singer/actress being threatened by some unknown triggerman. Throughout the movie we see an uber-fan who gets carried away with his adoration and appears to be the stalker, but the true culprit turns out to be a hired professional assassin.
Scream - (the first installment in the series.) We are given info that the police chief happens to wear the same shoes as the murderer, but the chief isn't the bad guy and we never see him in the movie again.
trailer - http://www.redherringmovie.com/home.htm
Politics and Fooling the Constituents
Red herrings have been around long before movies - or even books! Politicians, (or more specifically, the spin-doctors the Pols employ), have been known to plant a red herring in an opponent's arena in the form of disinformation. This is meant to divert the media (and its audience) from real facts to implied information that will hinder the opponent and keep the media from investigating further into the Spin Doctor's client. This leads to our last movie example.
Working your Plant
One of the major differences between red herrings and McGuffins is a McGuffin is planted in a movie to move the plot along while a red herring is a plant to confuse and mix up the plot. If you want to learn how to use a red herring well, study the masters - if you want to learn how to write a good compelling story, sit down to your own Sofa Film School watch a LOT of movies and dissect them... that's the best free education you can find!
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) and Agatha Christie were well-known writers that used red herrings in their books and master cinematographer, Alfred Hitchcock, used them in many movie plots. If you want to use a red herring in your movie, use it wisely, otherwise you'll just annoy your audience. No one likes to be fooled, but if you're a cinematographer that can do it cleverly the audience might enjoy that "Aha!" moment, otherwise, they might feel like you succumbed to cheap tricks to get them to see your cheesy movie, and they won't like you much!
What other red herrings in movies can you recall? Share with the class, please!
Jennifer O'Rourke is Videomaker's managing editor
Primary image courtesy of www.bigstockphoto.com