The Visual Story by Bruce Block (Summary)

January 22, 2021 - 12 min read

A guest post by Kambrio

The Book in Three Sentences

Visual Storytelling is essential for the production and editing of any visual media - feature and short films, documentaries, TV show, video games, websites and music video. You will learn how to structure visual components like writers structure their stories or composers their music. You will get an understanding of how the visual structure can convey mood and emotions, create a coherent visual style, and find an essential link between the narrative structure and the visual structure.

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Summary

The Visual Components

A viewer sees an image throughout its visual structure. Any image is built up from basic visual components: space, line, shape, tone, colour, movement, and rhythm. It’s applicable for any visual media - whether it’s a painting, photo, a film shot or animation, a scene from a video game.

The key to understanding how visual components affect the viewer’s emotions, mood and ideas is a concept of contrast and affinity.

You can create emotional intensity increasing complexity of visual components and difference among them within the frame, between the frames, or between the scenes. It makes an image more dynamic and creates contrast.

Simplification of visual components or their affinity does the opposite. It decreases intensity making the image calmer.

The progression of visual components is the foundation of visual structure. This concept is the core of the book. Bruce Block proves it with many examples. And for a deep understanding of the book, you need to go over and analyse dozens of them.

In this summary, we’ll go over all visual components and subcomponents applying the concept of contrast and affinity.

Space. Part one: The primary subcomponents

You can classify any image to one of the basic types of space: deep, flat, limited and ambiguous space. Each of them is visually unique.

Deep Space. The goal is to make an image in the way that it looks three-dimensional. You can achieve it by adding:

To create a deep space you need to use contrast, therefore it’s more intense than a flat space.

Flat Space. The goal is to highlight the flat, two-dimensional properties of an image. To achieve that, you invert the deep space cues listed above and swap them to the flat cues. You need to:

Limited Space. It uses all elements of deep space, except two:

Ambiguous Space. The goal is to make it impossible for a viewer to establish true object size or their spatial relationship. You can achieve it by using disorienting camera angles. It creates anxiety, intensity and confusion. However, once the object of known size appears on the screen, space stops being ambiguous.

Don’t limit yourself only to one type of space. Deep, flat, limited and ambiguous space create a broad range of visual possibilities.

Space. Part two: The frame

We can describe the frame’s space with the following terms:

Frame borders make an image closed. Horizontal and vertical lines within the frame can emphasize it. But if you remove them, or increase the intensity of movement, you will make the space open. It creates a feeling that the image exists outside of the frame.

You can apply contrast and affinity concept to space as well. You can add space contrast within the frame by dividing it into parts with different types of space. The same applies to sequences of the shots where scenes represent different types of space.

Line and Shape

You can simplify any image to lines:

You can classify each object, light or dark areas: circle, square or triangle. They can be two or three dimensional (sphere, cube, pyramid).

Lines and shapes have different emotional characteristics:

The most contrasting to each other are a circle and a triangle, or a sphere and a pyramid in 3D. Affinity occurs when all shapes belong to the same type.

Actionable tips:

Tone

The tone is an object’s brightness expressed in shades of grey. Tone helps to navigate the audience’s attention. Bright areas grab attention first.

You can control brightness range by colouring objects, lighting, shadows and exposure by manipulating camera shutter speed and aperture.

Using tone, you can highlight and hide objects within the frame. Hiding creates anxiety and makes the audience pay more attention to the sound.

How to control tone:

Don’t forget about contrast and affinity.

Colour

Colour circles organise colours and show their relationships with each other. It has three main characteristics - hue, brightness and saturation.

You can achieve contrast using different hues, brightness and saturation, and affinity if they are similar. Combination of warm and cold hues increases intensity while using only warm or only cold makes an image calmer.

There are two systems of organisation and mixing colours: additive and subtractive - RGB (red, green, blue) and CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, key (black)).

Opposite colours are called additional or complementary.

How to control colour:

Movement

Three things can move on the screen - object, camera and point of attention. They can be characterised by direction, quality, distance and speed. Camera movement can be two-dimensional (pan, tilt, zoom) or three-dimensional (dolly, track, crane).

These characteristics can also make an image calm or intense. You can control contrast and affinity of movement by:

Controlling point of attention and continuum of movement, filmmakers can control the viewer’s attention. Affinity makes transitions between shots coherent and smooth, and contrast of continuum may be surprising and chaotic, which causes excitement and anxiety.

Like other visual components, plan movement during storyboarding. Put arrows to show the movement of objects, camera or point of attention.

Rhythm

Any rhythm, including visual, has alteration, repetition and tempo. Rhythm can be created:

Any event (an action, a scene, a whole story) could be continuous or fragmented. Rhythm in continuous events is created during the shooting, in fragmented - during the shooting for shots separately, plus the editing. You can use both continuous and fragmented to control contrast and affinity.

Tip: use a metronome to control the rhythm of dialogue, movement and mood.

Story and visual structure

Any story has three parts:

The visual structure should be parallel to the narrative structure. You can select and control visual components to match visuals with the narrative. Try different combinations of visual components, make a graph for each of them. It will help you a lot during the shooting, creating decorations, choosing a colour palette, camera angles and lenses.

Practice, Not Theory

The key to creating great visuals is your point-of-view. You should know which emotions you want to evoke from the audience with your story. For example, a detective can be a genius and intelligent like Sherlock Holmes. Or awkward and immature like Ace Ventura. Different emotions require different visual components and approaches. There are four ways to choose visual components:

Use storyboards and pre-visualization, make notes, sketches. Rehearse, shot drafts, but don’t get crazy - keep your visuals simple and don’t create too many rules for yourself. Use them together with the concept of contrast and affinity to make visual structure support the narrative structure.

Quotations

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