Contrast and Affinity in Visual Storytelling

July 01, 2020 - 8 min read

A guest post by Kambrio

Any good story has a structure. Whether it's a feature film, TV show, ad or video game. The most well-known approach is the Three-act structure. In the beginning, the authors let the audience get to know the characters and begin with the exposition. They show where a story takes place and set the pace and conflict premises. As a plot progresses, conflict emerges and grows to reach the most intense point - a climax. Heroes get to the most difficult and challenging situation and after it, a intensity fades. The conflict is resolved and characters accomplish their goals or lose. At the ending, a plot needs some time to close all secondary storylines and give the audience an opportunity to absorb the information and think about conflict's resolution.

Conflict's development could be explained through the story intensity. Exposition often doesn't have any intensity. Then it grows during the conflict, spikes at the moment of climax, and fades after resolution.

The same happens with a movie's visual structure. Using contrast we can create the greatest intensity during the climax and reach necessary affinity among the characters and the audience at the end of a film. Such visual solution adds up to a story and increases its effect on a viewer.  However, you can keep a visual style uniform throughout the course of a movie. It also can help to make a fantastic visual structure if it contributes to the plot.

What is contrast?

Contrast is directly related to intensity. It is a difference, opposition - greater visual intensity. On the other hand  - affinity, or similarity - lesser visual intensity. The contrast makes an expression and increases the dynamic. Affinity helps to reach the opposite - tranquillity, calmness and absence of dynamic.

And the visual structure is based on the proper understanding of these two terms and their usage for different visual components.

Basic components are - space, line, shape, tone, colour, movement and rhythm. It's necessary to understand how to use each of them to build a visual structure. It is, however, beyond the topic of this essay, so we will focus only on building contrast inside a frame, between frames and between scenes.

Space

Contrast between deep and flat space.

Space is what appears on the screen. We can picture our three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional screen in the way it feels like a 3D image. A space like that is called deep. Then a contrast to it would be an absence of depth with an emphasis on two-dimensional properties of the screen.

Touch of Evil (1958)

The actual size relationship between objects can be purposefully manipulated to trick the viewer. Size relationships between unfamiliar objects can create confusion. This kind of space raises anxiety intensity and confusion and often used in mystical stories or thrillers. Space becomes defined as soon as an object with known size appears at the screen. A change between recognisable and ambiguous space inside a frame, between frames or between a sequence of frames increases general intensity.

Almost all the pictures we see have closed composition. Visible screen borders close a picture inside a frame and horizontal and vertical lines highlight it.

Open space raises a feeling that image exists outside of a frame. To achieve that you can remove all horizontal and vertical lines and make the camera's movement dynamic and disturbing like with hand-held shooting. It makes everything inside a frame moving as opposed to static frame borders.

Horizon divides Earth from the sky. Windows and doors separate characters or focus our attention on them. Matching frames or scenes with dividers or without them creates contrast and increases intensity. A similar effect happens when we watch simultaneous action happening on a split-screen. However, split-screen is often used for style but not to create contrast or reflect the story structure. Although it can increase a dynamic inside the scene which contrasts with normal shots, it doesn't necessarily support the store in the way it could.

And the amazing example of perfect usage of split-screen like this:

Line

Many lines appear in a frame - horizon, surface intersection and object's edges. We can create contrast using various types of lines. Simultaneous or consecutive usage of straight and curved lines creates a contrast. Same works for lines' direction and quantity. We can change their direction and limit or increase their number on the screen to achieve a necessary level of contrast.

Shape

Any object, illuminated area or shadow can be pictured with three simple shapes: circle, triangle and square. Circle and triangle or sphere and pyramid create the maximum contrast to each other. You can increase intensity change the 3D-shape to 2D-shape.

Colour

Colour is the most difficult visual components. It has three main characteristics - hue, brightness and saturation.

Hue is the position of a colour on the colour wheel. A contrast appears if there is a difference in hues. And affinity appears when all objects inside the frame have the same hue.

Brightness is a quantity of black and white in a hue. Affinity - using colours with similar brightness, contrast - using colours of different brightness.

Saturation is a purity of a hue. High saturated colours are very vibrant and bright, while low saturated colours are kinda dull. Affinity happens with colours of similar saturation, contrast - different saturation.

Choosing colours wisely is not easy. You can get started with the topic with free e-book by StudioBinder. And "The Art of Color" by Johannes Itten is a great choice if you want to dig deeper. It combines broad experience and research and has become very popular in the world.

Tone

A tone is the brightness of an object expressed in shades of grey. Tone contrast and affinity are not easy to apply because intermediate tones get into contrast shots. As a consequence, to achieve similarity you have to remove all light and dark tones. However, you can rotate shots with thoughtful tonal contrast with normal ones.

Tonal relations allow controlling the viewer's attention. You can reveal an object in the frame (the coincidence of tone) with tonal contrast if the image's shot highlights an object's shape. On the contrary, you can conceal an object (noncoincidence of tone), for example, hiding a character's face in horror or thriller films.

You can tune tonal range colouring objects or creating lighting and exposure. To find out what is contrast ratio, what is high key and low key lighting you can watch the video by Wolfcrow or StudioBinder.

Remember that colour and tone are not the same things. Estimate tonal range ignoring colour at all. Adjust the image applying the black-and-white filter to the frame or video.

Movement

The biggest contrast to movement is the absence of movement. Horizontal movement is less visually intensive while vertical movement is more intensive. The most intensive is the diagonal movement.

If all objects move with the same speed it creates affinity and low intensity of an image. If speed is different it creates contrast making an image more intense.

Point-of-attention movement

You can control visual tension and intensity which occurs as a result of the movement of viewers' eyes looking at the screen. Such movement is called the continuum of movement. Bright, moving, saturated objects and actors' eyes attract the most of the audience's attention. And you can control it by moving their focus inside a frame or, which's more important, between frames.

Thus, contrast and affinity depend on the direction of movement of the viewer's eyes and on the distance to a new attention point.

Camera Movement

Like the object's movement, the biggest contrast here is the absence of camera movement. The whole movie can be shot in static or constantly moving camera. Another approach uses camera movement only for one frame when the only motion or stop adds contrast and intensity. Such movement can be limited to 2D (panorama, angle, zoom) or 3D.

Raging Bull is not the only example of slow motion. You can recall Boromir death in Lord of the Rings or villain's death in Die Hard.

Rhythm

Metronome's ticks in music create rhythm. It consists of three subcomponents - alternation, repetition, tempo. Just like in sound, visuals can also create rhythm.

Tempo can be slow or fast. We can create it with static objects, moving objects or during editing. If tempo stays constant, we consider rhythms as uniform or regular. If the tempo changes, the rhythm becomes nonuniform (irregular). Rotating fast / slow, regular/irregular rhythms creates greater visual intensity and dynamic.

In "Traffic" (2000), which we mentioned earlier, authors created visual rhythms with the continuous and the fragmented techniques of shooting.


To wrap up,

contrast occurs and intensity increases if anything inside a frame, between adjacent frames, or between sequences of frames is different. On the contrary, if all visual elements, adjacent frames or scenes visually similar, affinity occurs and intensity decreases.

Another good example of multiple types of contrast is the final battle in "Kick-Ass" (2010). Try to find as many elements as you can.

Building visual structure

Now you have to choose the most suitable visual components and create a perfect visual structure for your project using contrast and affinity. To achieve that you need a vision, a designing principle. It means how you are going to make your film,  which emotions you want a viewer to experience.

For example, filmmakers tell the vampire stories in very different ways. Compare classic "Dracula" (1931) with more contemporary "Blade" (1998), or maybe you want to make a comedy "What We Do in the Shadows" (2014) with a very genuine and unique style. Everything is possible and it depends on your designing principle. Your choice of visual components is your unique vision on how you present your story to the viewer.

You can regulate contrast and affinity with intuition. And you can make a fantastic choice, or you can do it by chance. Basic visual components, principles of contrast and affinity play a huge role in building a visual structure. Knowledge of them can help to improve your creative intuition and contribute to your luck as well as help you make the right choice and solve problems with visuals.

It doesn't matter what you shot - documentaries, music video, TV ads, feature film, animated movie or TV show, - in any case you should know the plot, understand its structure and have a vision. Binding together visual structure and story structure helps you motivate your choices on visuals. Increase a visual intensity in conflicts, reach affinity in culmination with contrast principles. It plays a crucial role in a visual structure. Let it make you better pictures so the audience can experience the story with you.

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