Monday, November 22, 2010

Visual Storytelling: Three Goals

Far be it from me, a humble student, to reduce the irreducible, to find order in chaos, to make rules out of random artistic inspiration -- but I'm going to give it the college try. For my own sake, if not for yours.

Before I continue with my thesis, let me first state that I base all of the below on three assumptions:

1) "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." -- Leonardo da Vinci
2) "Drama is communicating an intellectual idea on an emotional level." -- Brian McDonald
3) Your style is how you solve a given problem. -- Will Eisner
3.5) And that I'm not talking out of my ass.

I do believe this morning, while watching DIE HARD (1988) with the sound off, that I may have sussed-out -- or perhaps, merely recycled by synthesis -- what I will call "The Three Goals of Visual Storytelling". These apply to film most readily -- but I bet with any keen study of a given visual medium's better works, you'd find that the same goals apply. Such media would include comics especially, but also painting, illustration, graphic design, etc. I'm on the fence about video games, because they're still trying to figure out just what they are as a collective medium and besides, no one can agree on what constitutes a good game beyond how they "feel" when they play it. Videogames have no "Poetics", no Shakespeare, no John Ford. Yet. But I digress, that is a much longer post for a much more lazy day.

Before I breakdown the rules as I see them, let me first define what exactly I mean by "good" visual storytelling. When I talk about "good" visual storytelling, it is usually a pretty quantitative assessment of the work's visual language, not a qualitative assessment of it's style (if there is such a thing), or whether or not I "liked it" because (for example) it's a romantic comedy starring my-favorite-actress-ever-Lindsey-Lohan.

But provided there is such a thing as "style", it's by definition not something we can quantitatively assess. Therefore we need to ask, "What criteria apply to visual storytelling beyond style?" A better way to ask this question might be to say, "What purposes do any given work's visual language serve, regardless of artistic 'interpretation'?"

If we take the primary goal of any work to be the action-objective "to communicate", then the three things any image or series of images must constantly be communicating are, in order:


ACTION - "What is the character doing? What is happening to them?"
The fundamental building block of drama: a character's actions define it's story, plot, and performances. These in turn define how we, the visual storyteller, render them.

Now, before you think I've arbitrarily lumped an unnamed fourth criteria called "Character" into Rule #1, "Action", let's all remember what F. Scott Fitzgerald said about action and character: "Action IS character." [My emphasis] Any one want to challenge Mr. Great Gatsby? Didn't think so.

GEOGRAPHY - "Where does the action take place?"
In order for the audience to understand what exactly constitutes a character's actions, they also need to know where it's happening. Is Indy in the Well of the Souls, or is he hiding out on a freighter? Is John McClaine being shot at on a roof, or running through glass in a computer lab? Is Harry Lime giving his "cuckoo clock" speech on a Ferris wheel, or running for his life through the sewers of Vienna?

Each location and it's specific geography, texture and atmosphere in the above examples all contribute to how the character's actions play out -- and how we perceive them. Would Welles' speech in The Third Man have been the same if he delivered it in the sewers? I don't think so.

This also calls to mind Mr. Anonymous' adage that "[Characters] are products of their environments." Can't really challenge someone named Anonymous.

EMOTION - "How does s/he feel about it?"
Lastly, what are the psychological ramifications of the actions our characters commit -- or the actions that others commit to them? Simply put, how do they -- and by empathic extension, "we" -- feel about it all?

If drama is the application of emotion to communication, then clearly this final "rule" is at the heart of storytelling. Emotion is the "this is what it's all about" element, whether we're talking about simply a single dramatic beat or the entire work, and it's this end that the other two "rules" serve. Emotion is ineffective without first knowing "who did what", "where".

I think it's fair to say that the reason "sentiment" has become such a dirty word is because of unearned emotion -- stories wherein the audience has not been given sufficient action and geography to empathically connect to and invest in a given story's characters. This is why it feels cheap when a film clearly wants us to cry and we feel nothing. A "sentimental" work's emotional manipulation is made transparent in these cases because we're engaged by neither the drama on display, nor how the drama is displayed -- nor, frequently, both.

Alfred Hitchcock put it best: "Emotion REQUIRES information." [My emphasis] Any one want to challenge Mr. Rear Window/Vertigo/North by Northwest/TakeYourPick?

Essentially, these three "goals" or elements of visual storytelling are another way of saying, "Character A does thing B in place C because of D." Ex 1: "Sandy vomited in the bathroom because she was nervous." Ex 2: "John shot the person breaking into his home because he was scared." At a minimum, the images we construct for each of these examples must clearly show each of the ACTION-GEOGRAPHY-EMOTION elements, then embellish as you see fit. In example, we need to see Sandy vomiting, in the bathroom, and find a way to show "nervous". Likewise, with example 2, we need to see John shooting a burglar, in his home, and we need to show that he is "scared". But those are deceptively simple breakdowns. The ways you can show each of those elements are legion, their composition and chronology an order of magnitude greater.

Before you scoff at the simplicity of the methodology, I have to point out that this simplicity is their strength. It doesn't matter how you implement them, as long as you do. If, as Will Eisner said, style is how you solve a given problem, then the how of showing your audience "who is doing what (action) where (geography) why (emotion)", is what becomes your style.

If you make the communication of ACTION, GEOGRAPHY, and EMOTION the only goals your images are beholden to, then you will rivet your audience with (insert emotion here)*.

Feel free to dismantle below.

*Provided, of course, that your content is given the same clear development. As my personal art school savior [see last post] said, "Art is the synthesis of form and content." Visual storytelling is the form, your story is the content.

**Everything in the above and more was handily cribbed from: Aristotle, da Vinci, Shakespeare, Mozart, Chekov, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Ford, Hitchcock, Wilder, Huston, Lumet, Spielberg, Mamet, Cameron, McTiernan (duh), McCloud, and my gracious mentors, Brian McDonald & Andrew Tsao. What is right in the above is owed to them, what is wrong is entirely my fumble.

***Of course, one of my mentors has conveniently boiled down all of the above to an even simpler, single rule: "ABC: Always. Be. Communicating." I don't think they're mutually exclusive, but that doesn't mean I'm right.