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Visual storytelling in films

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2593 words Published: 3rd Mar 2017

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Literature Review


In this preface section, more than a few factors that shape the art of relating visuals and stories in films will be listed down. These factors will be the root of the research in order to perform the methodology analysis of the thesis, in addition to answering the research questions as well as analyzing the obtained results from the research.

Visual Storytelling in Films: What is it?

The exact description of visual storytelling is hard to pin down succinctly as there are various schools of thought regarding the matter. All the same, The International Film School of Paris (EICAR) had defined it frankly as “Communicating visually in forms that can be read or looked upon. In cinema a story is most visual when ideas and emotions are expressed through performance and aesthetics as opposed to dialogue.” Based on that characterization it is not hard to understand why Monaco (2000) claims that a film is a language for it ‘communicates’ to an audience. It is not a language in the sense of English, French or Mathematic is, for there is no such thing as grammar or vocabulary that needed learning.

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Campsall (2002) is in agreement as he elaborated that the language of film expresses the way a film would ‘speak’ to its audiences and spectators which is why directors, producers and editors work to produce meaning from the moving still images of film, video and television. The viewers in the end are responsible in decoding these meanings in a not dissimilar way to interpreting spoken and written language. When watching a film; everyone from various age groups is able to comprehend the visuals they see. Monaco (2000) states further that there are two conclusions, that everyone can perceive and identify a visual image which leads to the above statement. Another is that even the simplest visual images are interpreted differently in by people with different backgrounds. This is because, as human beings, we don’t simply read what we see but we bring to our interpretation of moving images, a range of pre-existing expectations, information and mutual experiences that form the significance we take from what we see (Campsall, 2002).

An essential facet of film language is its gripping temperament and its manifestation of realism also known as verisimilitude. As Campsall (2002) wrote, it is not only as if the audiences are watching a bona fide ‘window on the world’, it’s a window that they would desire to remain on watching. Through these means, films are not only capable of being entertaining, enlightening and informing to its viewers, but also enabling them to perceive the world in a particular means. Moreover this makes the film language very much recognized as semiotic what with the usage of signs, codes and conventions. Those who could understand the language are able to see the methods or conventions used for visual storytelling.

Throughout this research, there were many books and articles that voiced out their opinions on methods of reading a film; each film jargons have their specific symbolism and usage depending on what the direction of the story. When one is able to properly read a film by means of identifying and understanding the conventions, one would be capable of visual storytelling (Sijll, 2005). Below is the list of the accumulated conventions used in today’s visual storytelling.

Visual Storytelling: Space

Space in film refers to the spatial dynamics inherent in the frame of a film. One would say that a film frame is akin to a static snapshot thus part of a moving picture. Like a painting, the static image of the frame presents inherent storytelling opportunities. Because a movie is a motion picture, the composition of the frame continuously changes. This added characteristics affords two important story elements – that of screen direction and comparison. Screen direction can suggest antagonism, individualism, and conflict, for example. A moving frame might be used to represent change, similarity or it’s opposite, stasis.

Visual Storytelling: Framing a Composition

The eye responds differently to various visual stimuli. Among the most important elements that have been discerned are: brightness, colour, size, shape, motion, speed, and direction. Through careful manipulations these elements can be used to guide the audience’s attention and emotional response. As always, content, juxtaposition with bordering frames, and the intersection of other elements will contribute to the viewer’s response.

Visual Storytelling: Shape within the Frame

Depending on use and context, shapes can be used to suggest ideas and emotions. Traditionally there are three fundamental shapes: the circle, the square and the triangle. Out of these three, many forms can be derived out of them: the half circle, the rectangle, and many others. For each shapes there are certain traditional association made of them. Block (2008) listed in “The Visual Story” some of the shape meanings. Rounded Shapes are associated with indirectness, passive, romantic, pertaining to nature, soft organic, childlike, safe and flexible. Squares however are direct, industrial, ordered, linear, unnatural, adult, and rigidness. Triangles are for aggressiveness and dynamics. Block cautions that these are not rules for new associations can always be made depending on the need of the story. Shape is merely one element in the frame.

Visual Storytelling: Editing

Editing is a way of constricting time and space or producing the outcome of a dream sequence or flashback. The results of editing are more often than not seamless and natural that the audiences tend not to be aware of it. In theory, editing is the constriction of scenes through assembly of shots. Different choices of editing could guide the audience’s emotional response. Pudovkin (1926) had set down five editing techniques that remain the foundation of the modern day cutting: contrast, parallelism, symbolism, simultaneity, Leit-Motif.

Visual Storytelling: Time

A film is a dramatic representation of life. It is made up of scenes ordered to represent the passage of film time through the assembly of edited shots. Film time is rarely paced the same as real life. With the exception of mise-en-scene, most edited sequences manipulate real time. From one cut to another, an opportunity of altering experiences of real time can be made. The reason filmmakers alter time is because they are creating a dramatic story. Only those moments that contribute to its advancement are included, all else is left out.

Visual Storytelling: Sound and Music

Outside of the musical score, movies rely on three kinds of sound to tell their stories: Dialogues, voiceover and sound effects. While voiceover and dialog are well understood to be writer’s tools, few screenwriters approach sound effects with the same certainty. Yet sound effects are as much the purview of the writer as are visual metaphor, sound effects can also suggest an extended aural metaphor. They can add layers of meaning to a film that are hard to achieve in other ways. Sound effects can be obvious or subtle. They can intentionally draw attention, or manipulate with stealth. They can expose, disguise, suggest establish or reveal. They can also be associated to specific events or characters.

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Lyrics of music can act as the voice of a character. They can reveal the inner thoughts in a way that can be more interesting than a simple dialogue scene. Lyrics can also act as the voice of the narrator. They add another delivery system with which to parcel out character and thematic information. In other times, music is symbolically used as a story element.

Visual Storytelling: Transitions

The movement between the end of one scene and the beginning of another is called a transition. Each transition presents an opportunity to convey story information by virtue of how the scenes are cut together. The scene can simply be cut with no intentional reference or constructed to add a story element. A matching transition is one way to exploit this opportunity and can be achieved in an infinite number of ways.

Visual Storytelling: Lenses, Positions and Motions of the Camera

The camera presents a scene – subjects, actions, settings – in a series of shots that render images on a screen. Instead of just placing the camera where an audience can watch the action, the camera is able to provide the audience with engaging visual experiences. Variety is important for if a scene is simply rendered by a continue series of wide shots, the eye will soon tires of repetitions. A good shot will usually contain a variety of camera framings, and angles. For example by exploiting the depth of field of the lenses, each character on scene can inhabit their own horizontal plan. In this way characters can be staged in-depth. This allows the audience to see each character reacting to one event simultaneously and in real time. Different positions also play a part. The closer the camera is to a character, the more likely audiences will sympathise with the character.

Visual Storytelling: Lighting and Colour

Film interprets subjects and scenes as images of light and shade. Lighting is one of the few aspects in film that has the ability to create a certain reality to the audience. There are a number of different styles of lighting, each designated as a style geared to the theme and mood, as well as its genre. Lightings can also be used to weaken subject matter. Colour on the other hand tends to be a subconscious element in film. It’s strongly emotional in its appeal, expressive atmospheric. In short, colour helps to suggest moods.

Visual Storytelling: Props, Wardrobes, and Locations

Props provide a dramatic way to express a characters inner world. Props speak visually, are mobile, and can be returned to throughout the movie. By purposely selecting and exploiting props, a film’s scene can be given an added layer of meaning. Wardrobes are the same as props; the decision to include wardrobe elements depends on whether it adds sufficient dramatic value be it to a character, to show character transformation or the passage of time. Another way to externalize the inner thoughts of character is to manipulate the locations. It also offers a huge storytelling potential, for a certain location can heighten drama, suggest parallels and contrast besides defining a character. All three can also serve the purpose of bringing a sense of metaphor to the film.


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