Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Are you really a visual storyteller?

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on May 9, 2011

The climax to Road to Perdition

Lots of multimedia producers describe themselves as “visual storytellers”: a sort of umbrella term to cover off video journalism, photography, motion graphics and maybe flash interactives too.

And as an umbrella term it’s a good one..but how many visual storytellers are really that?

The mantra in creating television news, documentaries, cinema and now online video – is to let the pictures tell the story. But this is actually extremely rare: watch the majority of news, docs and online video stories and instead the words lead the way, dragging pictures along behind them.

So what is visual storytelling?

To be a visual storyteller you should be able to tell a story with as few words as possible – maybe even none. If someone was watching your film with the sound turned off, would they understand what was happening?

There are a huge number of tools we can use as visual storytellers to convey messages with images alone: from the type of shot we use, the editing style, whether we go handheld, use a steadicam or sticks, transitions, repeated motifs and all sorts.

The first 10 minutes of Dirty Harry have absolutely no dialogue; the last 20 minutes of Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition contain just six lines of dialogue but bring the story to bloody climax and denouement. You know exactly how someone is feeling, what they’re thinking, and what they’re going to do next – but you haven’t been told in words, you’ve been shown.

One thing is for sure: it is easier said than done. My last production, explaining the AV Referendum had more than 600 words in 4 minutes. Rubbish.

Can you tell a whole story with no dialogue? You bet’cha. I love this 3 minute short by Norwegian film maker Kristoffer Borgli. Drama, plot twists, humour and suspense – all in three minutes – all without a single word being uttered.

Why not set yourself a challenge to tell your next story in 100 words…or less?

7 Responses

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  1. Patrice Ripley said, on May 9, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    I am a photographer and consider myself a noun historian of people places and things . If the photographs happen to communicate a story or some sort of emotion it is bonus.

  2. icatchingmovies said, on May 10, 2011 at 10:50 am

    The concept of story is something with which we continue to wrestle, despite its central place in every human culture. But we all know one when we see one.

    What is story? It’s not a subject that’s taught at film school – or, seemingly, anywhere else that doles out modern degrees. Most of us harbour vague notions about some entertaining entity that contains events, and, for some reason we can’t uniformly explain, emotion. Other definitions have journeys, arcs, jeopardy and heroic conflict. Why isn’t it as well understood as electricity?

    Many cultures encapsulated their maps in stories. The Dreaming Tracks that criss-cross Australia are preserved as Aboriginal Songlines, and to cross the country you had to learn the songs. Story originates from a world in which nobody wrote. It had to sustain human knowledge such as science, philosophy, religion as well as to entertain.

    Story evolves. So does storytelling. For a hundred years, Film has been the latest and arguably most compelling evolute yet. The Wilderness Downtown was one of the first convincing demos of a new and almost game interactive form of story http://thewildernessdowntown.com/ in which the viewer influences the telling.

    More recently http://webmademovies.org/ has been a locus of speciation. With the right browser there are engaging pieces to be found on that site.

    So, what is story? Or do we learn more by considering what is not story?

  3. […] age the visual storyteller grasp the wisdom and technical mastery of their craft and achieve good shots. Yet I find that […]

  4. […] is my way of thinking about using pictures to tell a story in a more visual way – as I describe in more detail in this blog post. It could involve using symbolism, repeated motifs, colours, shot sizes and much more to convey the […]

  5. […] What makes you a visual storyteller? – we talk a lot about ‘visual storytelling’ but what does it mean? And how do you do it? […]

  6. […] it sounds difficult, it is because it is. But when done well it is captivating. I have blogged about Kristoffer Borgli’s brilliant short I Expect No-one before and watched it a dozen times. Here it is again: watch how the tension, reveal and punchline ending […]

  7. Shalom said, on April 10, 2012 at 11:14 am

    Hi i have made a video that is called “dont judge”.We all can judge sometimes.It is only 14 seconds long.if you want to see. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yV82VRLpTXM&feature=youtu.be


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