Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Comprehensive Terminology for Visual Storytelling

I finally found time to read The Visual Story – Creating the Visual Structure of Film, TV and Digital Media by Bruce Block. The main point of this highly normative book is to remind aspiring film makers of the importance of controlling every visual aspect of their movies.

Without getting bogged down in technical details Block offers a comprehensive overview of all the aspects that can and should be controlled in the creation of visual media content. In less than 300 pages he introduces a basic set of visual components and their respective categories that can be used to create contrast or affinity within shots, between shots or between whole sequences.

Thanks to the many pictures and diagrams (in full color for the first time) the text is reduced to a minimum that nevertheless is completely sufficient to get the concepts across clearly. At the end of each chapter Block suggests a couple of films to study.

“The wonderful aspect of studying pictures is that there are no secrets. The ingredients in food, for example, can be hidden. You eat a delicious meal but can’t guess the secret recipe. A picture’s visual structure can’t hide because everything is visible on the screen. The more times you watch a film, the more the visual ingredients will reveal themselves.” (page 83)

Although targeted primarily at film makers this book comes in handy for film scholars as well. After the tools are laid out, it is made clear that (in narrative media) the story structure should be the basis for every visual decision a director makes. In the end Block offers some case studies to show how successful movies make use of all these aspects to communicate their story visually.

The one thing that annoyed me a little was the lack of captions for frame enlargements. I found myself constantly browsing the index for precise information about the example pictures. Also there are some minor printing issues regarding the gray scale.

Granted, there are more academic and elaborate books on film analysis and many a thing about visual composition is illustrated more beautifully in the Famous Artists Course series, but I haven’t yet seen another book that unites all the aspects of visual storytelling in one coherent concept. Moreover, Block does not need to explain the technical processes or conventions of editing, cinematography and so forth to make his point.

My favorite chapter was – no, not the one about color (which is great, of course) – the one about movement which, in my opinion, is one of the most cinematic of all aspects and one that has often been neglected in film studies because the additional dimension of time can hardly be analyzed by looking at just one frame of a shot.

Of course, you could discover most of these concepts by analyzing a lot of movies on your own (which I, for my part, find very important and rewarding), however this book not only saves you a lot of time but also offers a useful terminology to describe what you’re looking for.

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