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Best practices of storytelling through video and imagery

Jun 12, 2018

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Bit of an oxymoron to read best practices about storytelling through video and imagery, isn’t it?

I mean, technically I should be creating this whole story with no words, just video and imagery to really drive the point.

Not to worry, I will be leveraging a few visual devices to assist this blog entry. And to be honest, you should know that I’m a little uncomfortable with the term “Best Practice.” This is what works for me and I’m always practicing to be my best. Hope it contributes to your best.

When reading, you formulate images in your mind about how a character or scene may look. You do this when you go to the movies and are all like “I pictured it differently in the book” and then your friend is like “wait, you can read?” and then you’re like “why am I even friends with you?”

That scene right there. What was that like in your mind? Did I place you just walking out of a movie theater with your bestie? Was it day or night? Did you picture me being the friend? Likely not, I rarely go to the theater; popcorn crunching really irritates me and I wish they only served ice cream and mashed potatoes. Anyhoo, you put together visuals in your mind that best compose what is being described. And as a creator, the closer you can convey what that scene feels like, the stronger you will connect with people.

Whether a personal project or client work, one thing I always ask myself is: What do we want the viewer to feel? I begin with base emotion: Happy, sad, ridiculous, safe, excited, scared, silly, impatient, mysterious, you get the picture (pun intended). Depending on how you want the viewer to feel, it can be one or a combination of feelings and moods.

Knowing that, I can then detail out the characteristics from which the visual(s) can tap into to create that feeling. These intricacies, for me, fall into several key factors:

  • Color – are they vibrant, monochromatic, black and white?
  • Point of view – are you in 1st person, 3rd person, or a fly on the wall?
  • Angle and range of the view – where is your field of vision?
  • Lighting – Bright, overcast, stark, dull, dark?
  • Popcorn – Nope. That goes for kettle chips too.
  • People – are there any? Facial expression obviously factors big.
  • Photorealistic/Illustrative – what style approach is most appropriate?
  • Sound – like lighting, can totally set a mood but that’s a separate blog.

Now, back to our movie theater scene. Go ahead and pick a couple of those base emotions.  Ok good, I agree – let’s do happy and safe. Too easy? Ok, ok, let’s do sad and scared. Still? OK FINE we’ll do ridiculous and mysterious. Actually, know what? We’re gonna do all three combos because let’s be real, the client always expects to see three options.

Happy and Safe

“Why am I even friends with you?” – The guy

This shot takes the scenario out of the movie theater and places the conversation in a different context and later in time.

Two main elements set the stage immediately. The seasonal setting and the expressions of the characters. The woman is already smiling (happiness: bingo) having just done the teasing and the man’s expression says “ooh, nice burn” but still thinks it’s funny.  Snow indicates the holiday season which for many people is a the most wonderful season of all (jolliness: slam dunko).

Key factors used:

  • Limited color palette – puts a bit more focus on their faces.
  • 3rd person close at eye level – the intimacy provides a sense of safety.
  • Brightly lit – adds a cheerful nature to the scene.
  • Absolutely no popcorn – nice.
  • 2 photorealistic people – provides comfort in relatability.

Those elements combined help tell the story in a happy and safe manner and you can see how this visual would be a viable option.

Sad and Scared

For this scene, the setting is ambiguous. It could be leaving the theater in conversation or perhaps replaying the conversation mentally at a later time.

The obvious element is the illustration approach. To show variety in how different stylistic treatments help assist with storytelling, having a graphic novel style would help exaggerate the emotion selected for this option. Having an ambiguous background helps with the dramatic effect, focusing on the subject, further emphasized by the contrast of flat shapes and dimensional shading. She is obviously in emotional distress, she is not so obviously an illustration reference of Natalie Portman, I think she has such a gut-wrenching cry face  (Nat, I mean that in the best way if you’re reading this).

Key factors used:

  • Black & White – stark contrast provides additional layer of emotion.
  • Illustrative style – opens up range of visual devices for exaggerated effects, the jagged word bubble for instance.
  • Absolutely no popcorn or slurping soda from a straw then pausing briefly before going “ahhh” – awesome.
  • Spotlighting – directional lighting from above on the character accentuates the facial expression from the furrowed brow to the pursed lips.

Again, you can see how the combination of these elements can create a narrative tied to the emotive direction we want the viewer to feel. I tried to compose a sense of sadness and fear in one frame, hoping your cheeks are damp from the tears you just finished wiping away.

Ridiculous and Mysterious

“I pictured it differently in the book” – a bovine

“Wait, you read?“ – his equine friend

“Why am I even friends with you?” – the bovine

This last example takes place after having watched a film and our characters have set off to greener pastures.

Not sure I have to break this one down but let’s get to it. I believe it’s safe to say we can check off “ridiculous” in that we have animals conversing. Not to mention the bovine’s meticulously placed “bed head” hair. Ridiculous. So where’s the “mysterious” come in? Well, that’s a mystery. Just kidding, the last frame’s close-up composition coupled with a partially obscured face gives off a little sense of mystery. It’s a look that says “I’m deep, but only if I let you get to know me. If it wasn’t for this horse, I would consider myself a lone wolf”. Hmmm pretty mysterious for a cow to liken itself to a wolf if ya ask me.

Key factors used:

  • Color balance – opening starts with a blend of colors in the scene, as we progress, the colors minimize to generally two with the sky and horse, and finally we rest on singular tonal look at the end. It’s a subtle build up to focus the impact on the delivery of the last line. Whew, this was a long bullet point.
  • Dramatic lighting at end – further emphasis on the end line.
  • Absolutely no popcorn… wait. WHO PUT THAT ON THE FIRST FRAME? – cringe.
  • Animals instead of people – this really beefs up the ridiculous
  • Gradual close up, 3rd person – creates a mysterious build up

Using this combination of elements, we crafted the ridiculous with a dash of mystery. I mean are they were-animals like half human/half animal? Are we seeing a werecow and a werehorse? That cow did reference a wolf. So many questions.

What have we learned here besides the amount of grammar rules I’ve butchered? We learned I easily get distracted and have issues with popcorn. We learned that for my successes, I’ve found that nailing down what the base emotion is for your story – asking yourself what you want your audience to feel – is the foundation. The tools and techniques discussed here will help build that emotion layer by layer until you compose the visual that feels right. You will make people laugh, cry, feel good about themselves, get motivated, and even stir up compassion.

You have a story to tell. Go tell it.