Human beings are uniquely wired to receive stories. Our brains instinctively try to put images together to make sense of what we see. The art of visual storytelling is the ability to use images to convey a certain message.
Video, being a visual medium, is one of the supreme storytelling formats. If you want productions that will stay in your audience's mind, you must tell a story. This is true of the news, sitcoms, business presentations and wedding videos. People may become interested by your stunning visuals and graphics, but the story is what will remain in their mind. On the flip side, your visuals can also contradict your storytelling. Using the wrong framing, lighting or music can actually send the wrong message.
Video is one of the supreme storytelling formats.
Additionally, the ability to tell your story visually, without dialogue, can open up the entire non-English speaking world. Learning the art of visual storytelling can help you communicate your message to a new audience. The key to learning visual storytelling is to observe how this is being done all around you. For example, large corporations often use the same advertising around the world by simply changing a few graphics. [vm_ads:segment_break:1]
Try This Experiment
To begin understanding visual storytelling, try this exercise: Turn your television to a drama that you have never seen and turn the sound off. Without hearing a single word, can you tell what's happening? You may not be completely correct, but your mind will want to make sense of the story. How quickly do you begin to tell yourself the story?
Continue watching until you can tell who is the villain and who is the hero. How can you tell the difference? Is it a matter of lighting? Is there a difference in the framing of the shot? Start watching TV and movies in this way; watch for the visual story.
The Elements of a Story
What makes a good story? Every story, whether visual or not, has to contain several elements or it’s not a story. A story needs a main character, preferably someone we care about. Second, the character needs to have some kind of problem or conflict. Finally there has to be a resolution of that problem. This story arc, as it is called, was discovered by Aristotle thousands of years ago. The professional visual storytellers in Hollywood have been using this concept since the silent movie days.
The storyteller's art is in how well he or she can make us care about the main character and draw us into the conflict. For example, in Star Wars, you begin to genuinely care about Luke Skywalker, and George Lucas kept us engaged with his quest. Partially, this was done with great visual storytelling. Luke was in his white clothes and Darth Vader all in black. Even the bright planet of Tatooine vs. the colorless Imperial spacecraft demonstrates the hero and villain of the story. [vm_ads:segment_break:3]
It's a Matter of Trust
The most basic visual element to be considered when building your story around a main character is your subject's eyes. Humans are wired to look at a person's eyes. It begins with nursing babies looking at their mother and we never stop throughout our lives. We gain information about other people by looking at their eyes. In building a visual story, the eyes are critical. Always check focus on your subjects’ eyes. It's mandatory that the main character's eyes are seen. Eyes in shadows are fine for a villain, but not the hero, unless you’re making a dramatic reveal, like in the Indiana Jones movies when Indy is first introduced. Consider lighting your subject’s eyes with small eyelights.
The placement of your lens to your subject's eyes is important. The camera is the audience's eyes. The viewer needs to be at the same eye level, or close to it, to establish trust. Watch the evening news and you'll notice that the newscasters are always at eye level. In the very early days of television it was discovered that we have to trust the newscaster. If someone is above the level of the camera, they are essentially looking down at the audience. You never want your protagonist to look down at the audience. It's fine for your antagonist. We expect that. Think Star Wars again. Darth Vader is portrayed by actor Dave Prowse who was chosen partially because he stands 6-feet 6-inches. He always looks down at the camera.
Lighting your character’s eyes also plays a big part in the visual story. It is said that director Francis Ford Coppola deliberately didn’t light the eyes of his main character, Don Vito Corleone, but rather kept them shadowed to make him appear a more menacing character. [vm_ads:segment_break:4]
Stirring the Pot
Once we establish who our characters are and we begin to trust them, we need to get to heart of the story: the conflict. In telling a story with visuals, this may be difficult to think through and it does require planning. If your goal is to tell some of your story without dialogue, angles play an important role. Just as having a villain look down to the camera conveys a certain mood. Your subject's relationship to a person or thing also communicates ideas and feelings. One common scene shows the main character looking up at something, then the camera pulls out and up to show what he or she's looking at. This shows a conflict. The visuals show the obstacle that needs to be overcome.
Another visual storytelling angle that shows emotion is the reaction shot. All of us do this more than we realize. We're with a friend and someone insults them. We will instinctively look for our friend's face for a reaction. The shot is used in dozens of ways like a crowd applauding or laughing, a tight shot of our hero's eyes looking angry at the villain, a bride's mother tearing up, etc. A great reaction shot can add to your story by showing feeling. Of course, lighting can convey many moods as well. Lighting can change the mood of a scene from a happy stroll in the park to a scary, dangerous, trek through the woods. Same scene, same actors, just changing the lighting from high-key with little contrast to a low-key deep contrast look. [vm_ads:segment_break:5]
Visualizing Shot by Shot
If you haven't already thought of this, this is going to require planning out every shot of your story. If you are planning a completely wordless story, you will have to think differently.You will have to think in shots. As the camera records, think about what every scene says in the visual story. Visual storytelling will often rely heavily on a storyboard. A storyboard is a series of sketches that map out each shot. Don't worry if you feel you can't draw, it just has to make visual sense. The storyboard becomes the script for your visual storytelling. [vm_ads:segment_break:6]
Music plays a key role whenever you are telling a story without dialogue. Although the concept of music and mood is a study in itself, music has a powerful effect to add to or take from the story.
As you are looking to enhance your project, pay attention to what your music is saying. One last journey to the galaxy far, far away; think about how you could tell Darth Vader was near because of the dramatic Imperial March. It just wouldn't be the same if this classic villain was introduced with circus music.
Think about your choice of music carefully. Make sure the music conveys the right theme. For example, what does heroic music sound like? What does music do for a conflict scene? Watch your favorite movie and become aware of the music. You can learn a lot from observation. [vm_ads:segment_break:7]
Bringing It Together
If your goal is to create a completely wordless video or simply enhance the stories that you are already telling, become aware of the art of visual storytelling. Watch movies and TV with a new perspective. Watch how the various angles say something about what is happening in the conflict. Be aware of how editing and lighting plays a part. Become more aware of the music around you. Ask yourself how all of these change your mood and enhance the story. [vm_ads:segment_break:8]
The Disney Difference
If you want to immerse yourself in the art of visual storytelling, visit a Disney theme park. As Walt Disney created his first park, Disneyland, he called upon the talents of cinematographers, lighting designers, art directors and more. He called these professionals "Imagineers." He charged them with creating rides and attractions that tell stories entirely with visuals and music.
Imagineers today will tell you that Disney's tradition is even stronger now. Everything they do revolves around telling a story. They will tell you that even the shops and restaurants have stories. They plan the story before they begin the design process. They apply the same concepts found in visual storytelling to architecture, interior design and ride design. Nothing is added unless it fits the story. As you walk around a park, or even one of the hotels, look for the angles and lighting. Ask yourself who is the hero and who is the villain. Look for the conflict. Even the music will add to the story experience. [vm_ads:segment_break:9]
A True Test: Watch The Artist
For a real test of a modern movie with an old-fashioned storytelling style, watch the 2011 Academy Award winning silent film, The Artist. The story takes place during the heyday of the silent film era, right when the talkies were emerging. Due to it’s story, the black and white footage without dialog fits the era, yet it was written, filmed and edited very strategically to entertain a modern-era audience. French director Michel Hazanavicius must have had quite the struggle with the Hollywood industry to get the movie off the ground. What made it work? Good storytelling. Once you get past the first few minutes’ revelation that there is no dialog, every video producer who strives to tell a story well would benefit from watching this movie.
Jeff Chaves is the Chief Creative Officer of Grace Pictures Inc., which he co-owns with his wife, Peggy. He got his start as an Army Broadcaster in the 1980s and spent 12 plus years working on broadcasting. Jeff left broadcast television to pursue full-time ministry.