Thursday, August 15, 2013

Visual Storytelling

Human beings loved to tell stories since the beginning of history. Stories helped them to get free out of wild fantasies, imagination of exploits, unfulfilled desires and fear.

 Even before languages developed, the cave people used to tell stories by drawing on the cave walls, or by dancing around the night fire and producing sounds with their mouth. 

Their stories were much more pictorial and imitative compared to ours.

Slowly, the early wild hunters became settlers. There was more time in hand to contemplate. An urge for keeping permanent records developed too. 

System of writing was standardized. People got separated more and more in cultures. 

Children were now trained to think in words, spoken and written. The natural gift of thinking in images – imagination – was largely lost.

 People crafted more elaborate, articulate stories which were more intellectual, and evoking crisp, clear cut images less.

The art of modern poetry, as opposed to the art of the Novel, emerged out of a hankering for this lost gift.

 Through images, deeply hidden in our unconscious mind, poets wanted to connect emotion directly to emotions, without taking much recourse to rational intellect. 

Thinking in terms of images was always a way to get back to the dawn of humanity, to our animal days.

 Poets, starting from the Romantic days of Lyrical Ballads, to the postmodern ones, tried to tap the animal in the basic human to show him how he comes to terms with his society and environment. 

They always did that by evoking images – raw or more sophisticated, but images nonetheless.

Movies evoke such images naturally. When we read a story or a poem, we have to go through a process of translation to create mental pictures which we can connect to. 

For a movie, the picture is already there. So that one layer of translation process is absent. And that helps.

Unfortunately, some of our deep emotions consist of too many physical images and sensations of other kinds. Philosophical kinds of notes and raw sensations have always a problem to be portrayed through images. 

Let us take an example. Our Hero is hungry. He is waiting for his rich girlfriend to come with food and money. He is poor and has no money to buy food. But the arrival of girlfriend is delayed.

 How can anyone portray the mixed kind of sensations – anger, anxiety, lack of security, grief, waiting and hunger, at the physical level – through a series of images?

Of course, we can show a closed, claustrophobic space with a lensing towards tele. We can make this space feel cold and unwelcome with a play of a contrasty blue-green colour where it is very unsaturated at the points of attentions in the frame. 

We can show the hero unshaved, looking a little sick, unsteady, smoking cheap cigarettes as he waits. We can also place scene properties to emphasize the mood. 

In addition, we add silence interspersed with incidental sounds of clock, and water dropping from the damaged tap in the bathroom.

We can do all that. Shall we still get the mental image we have in mind?

More importantly, did we have a clear-cut mental, emotional image to start with, which we want to concretize through actual, concrete video and audio images?

We know, we have seven very basic visual building blocks to start with.

 They are space, line, shape, tone, colour, movement and rhythm. 

When it is a motion picture story, it unfolds in time. So, time is the receptacle that holds them all. 

And finally, it is the square or rectangular screen that suddenly cuts the reality off, at the edges, and fits the other elements in.

The space element, at the outset, looks more like a stage space. But, unlike the stage, we can draw the spectator’s attention to a particular area in the square frame through selective focusing. 

We keep the important objects or characters in the focus, while we keep the rest of the frame out of focus as just the supporting background.

Starting from the Renaissance painting, it was a European norm to divide the picture frame in planes to have contrast among FG, MG and BG.

The idea came from sculpture – positive and negative spaces.

 When something is important to show, that should be in a plane which is the sharpest in the picture. Normally, that element of the picture – be it an object or a character, stays in the foreground plane. But, its position can change depending on the story.

However, when the foreground characters determines an action which is to affect the background character/s, the filmmaker can present the audience with a choice of looking at all the planes at their sharpest, at the same time. 

Such a thing happened long back, for the first time in a major way, in Orson Welles’ debut movie Citizen Kane, where, in a flashback sequence, Charles Foster Kane’s childhood is shown. 

There, the child playing with snow can still be seen as a sharp figure in the background as a small size puppet, while his future is decided by his parents and the would-be legal guardians inside the room. 

Compared to the child’s diminishing size the guardians are like giants. That creates a strong comment in the story. 

Also, the audience is forced to concentrate on the background child from time to time, as it is his fate only which is worked upon without his knowledge or consent. 

Such a powerful comment is possible only with checking just one of the elements in the visual storytelling – space.

 How much of the space – how many layers of ground – we would like to show in focus? 

Sometimes the translation from word to image is very direct. If we want to focus on the character A only, we have to keep him visually in focus (and everything else out of focus.)

For Alfred Hitchcock the rule was even simpler. 

If you know who is the hero. If you are sure how much importance he has in the story, keep him in the frame for that long in the film. 

If he is dominating more in a scene, keep him in that much bigger size compared to the other characters or objects in the frame.

Sometimes it can be a little more complex.

 Rhythm and psychological movements can be produced in a single frame, a single shot or in a series of shots. But, each of them demands a different guiding philosophy. 

For a filmmaker like Sergei Eisenstein in Bolshevik Russia, emotions were a result of conflicting shots. 

Show anexpressionless man. Follow it by a plate of steaming soup, a deadbody and a lovely baby, and the man gets expression out of nowhere. 

Eisenstein took this simple experiment by Lev Kuleshov much further in his debut feature Strike(1924) by showing tortured people in one shot, followed by another shot of killing in a slaughterhouse. 

In his later films, he developed them even further sometimes to shockingly universal, and sometimes deeply cultural, intelligent level.

But, he, in his own ways, was only translating out thoughts in words to visuals to wring out emotions from our selves.

How to learn such visual storytelling? How to have so much command over the visuals so that we can also produce any emotion in our viewers’ minds to play with their protected selves by laying them bare, for the next two hours? 

Answer is simple. We have to see the world like a child, but with experiences added.

This might sound ironical. A child lacks experience. That is why s/he sees the world like a clean slate, without any prejudice. 

However, it would not feel so strange if we remember that all our associations affect our psychology as we grow up. That is how we learn things. That is how we form our ideas about the world. 

We see everything through the prism of our identity. The world looks beautiful than ever when we are in love, or when we have just achieved a grand success in our career. The same world looks pale and dragging when we are separated from our beloved, or when we are in grief.

A visual storyteller collects and remembers the experiences of individuals of a particular culture (or, many cultures.)

 He tries to recreate the same psychological balance or disbalance, the same feeling, by reproducing the basic sense impressions which one felt at a particular moment in his life.

 Was the world colourful? Was everything looking bigger than its own size? Was everything vibrant, almost throbbing with energy? How was a particular situation visually and aurally?

 A filmmaker collects such experiences, remembers and uses at will, in his art.

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