The Visual Story by Bruce Block (Summary)

Learn how to structure visual components like writers structure their stories or composers their music.

The Visual Story by Bruce Block (Summary)
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.

Three Reasons to Read

  • You want to get a profound understanding of visual elements: space, line, shape, tone, colour, movement and rhythm.
  • You want to learn how to connect narrative and visual structures using exposition, climax and resolution by creating visual structure charts.
  • You want to get inspiration for your projects. The book has over 700 illustrations, dozens of examples and advice on creating visual structure.

Three Reasons to Avoid

  • Bruce Block won’t teach you the exact methods of editing, composition or lighting. The book is practical but provides low-level knowledge of visual components.
  • “Practice, Not Theory” - the last chapter’s name. To get a profound understanding of visual components you need to analyse dozens of films and build a visual structure for your projects. If your work isn’t related to the development of visual structure, ask yourself, do you have enough time to learn this book?
  • The first edition was published in 2001, the second in 2013, the third in 2020. If you got the old one, you won’t find examples from the recent films (if you need them).

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:

  • Perspective - the more vanishing points image has, the deeper it looks. A viewer’s attention is always focused on the vanishing point's location;
  • Size difference - bigger object seem closer than smaller objects;
  • Movement - the dolly in/out, the track left/right, and the boom (crane) up/down movement of an object to a camera or objects moving in different planes create a relative movement. Any visible different in distance intensifies the illusion of deep space;
  • Diffusion - better-detailed objects seem closer, and objects with lower details seem further. Haze in the air reduces visible details of further objects;
  • Shape change of objects while moving objects or camera;
  • Tonal and colour separation - bright and warm objects seem closer, dark and cold objects seem further;
  • Focus - blurred objects lose depth and become flat.

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:

  • move all objects onto the foreground;
  • remove perspective;
  • objects and camera should move parallel to the shooting plain, use zoom;
  • objects have an equal number of details and have the same size, don’t change their shape;
  • remove all smoke and focus or make them so strong so they conceal all cues of deepness;
  • limit the colour palette to only cold or warm colours and tonal range only to thirds tones of the achromatic scale.

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

  • extended planes are replaced by frontal, parallel to the shooting plane;
  • objects and the camera should only move parallel to the plane of the screen;
  • heavy smoke or objects out of focus can be perceived as background and create a frontal plane.

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:

  • Format - aspect ratio;
  • Surface division;
  • Closed & open space.

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:

  • edges, contours of objects, their shadows;
  • imaginary lines, created by a connection of a few visible objects;
  • invisible axes of objects;
  • lines from the intersection of planes;
  • trajectories of moving objects.

Such simplification is called Linear Motif. It can be a combination of rounded, straight, vertical, horizontal or diagonal lines.

There are three ways to create contrast and affinity with lines:

  • Orientation - angles between lines. Diagonal lines are more intense, horizontal lines are less dynamic;
  • Direction - objects’ trajectories;
  • Quality - lines’ curvature, thickness and length.

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:

  • Circles and curvy lines are natural, gentle and passive;
  • Squares and straight lines are unnatural, rigid, linear;
  • Triangles, diagonals and angles - chaotic, dynamic, aggressive and bold.

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:

  • Control lines and shapes during the shooting;
  • Create a storyboard for linear motifs, determine shapes of actors, decorations, costumes;
  • Keep the lighting in mind, it will help you to highlight or removes lines and shapes using light patterns;
  • Simplify the frame to main shapes by choosing a suitable shooting angle.

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:

  • Create a tonal range with artistic design - environment, decorations, costumes;
  • Conceal or reveal objects with dark and bright areas;
  • Adjust the brightness using a black and white filter.

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)).

The additive system implies mixing colours with different hues. The subtractive system is used for mixing pigments.

Mixing two main colours create third and extends the colour circle.

  • RGB: B + R = magneta, G + B = cyan, R + G = yellow, R + G + B = white;
  • CMYK: M + Y = red, Y+ C= green, C+ M = blue, M+ Y + C= black.

Opposite colours are called additional or complementary.

How to control colour:

  • Choose a place, time of day and weather;
  • Remember, the audience pays attention to the most bright object first;
  • Use colour palette: One Hue, Complementary Hues, Split Complementary Hues, Three-Way Split, Four-Way Split;
  • Colour script - specify colour palettes for the entire production, scene, acts, sequences, shots;
  • Use Lens Filters, Lighting Filters, Flashing and Pushing, Bleach bypass, Color correction.

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:

  • Combining normal shots with slow-motion shots;
  • 2D camera movement with 3D camera movement;
  • moving object or background changing and changing their speed, size, tone and colour.

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:

  • By static objects. Composition and lines create visual rhythms. Areas with the object are called positive space, without the object - negative space. You can create alteration and repetition by switching between positive and negative space;
  • By moving objects. Moving objects have two types of rhythm: primary and secondary. The movement of the main object creates the main rhythm, the movement of the object’s part creates secondary rhythm. The main rhythm occurs when the object enters or exits the frame, moving in front or behind another object, stops or changes direction;
  • During editing. With each cut new rhythmic beat occurs. The stronger contrast between shots, the stronger the rhythmic beat.

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:

  • Exposition - facts to commence the story;
  • Conflict and climax. Conflict intensifies together with the story. In the most intense point - climax - a hero chooses their path and either win or lose in the conflict with an opponent;
  • Resolution - a viewer learns a culmination of a plot and its subplots.

Story structure can be depicted on a graph that plots the story’s intensities. The horizontal axis is the time length of the film, vertical - story intensity from 0 to 100.

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:

  • Instinctive - your gut feelings and emotions;
  • Arbitrary - choosing what works best by a series of trials & errors;
  • Researched - getting inspiration from other pieces of art (books, photography, paintings, classical films);
  • Analytical - analysing script and author’s point-of-view.

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

  • The first time you watch a movie, keep the sound turned on. If the movie looks promising for research, turn off the sound and watch it again. The more times you view it, the more details you’ll notice about its visual structure.
  • The students who sat in Eisenstein’s cold Russian classroom had the same basic goal as the picture makers of today - to make a good picture.
  • A good writer carefully structures words, sentences, and paragraphs. A good musician carefully structures notes, measures, and bars. A director, cinematographer, production designer, or editor structures visuals by applying the Principle of Contrast & Affinity to the basic visual components.
  • Be sure to motivate the camera moves by linking them to object movement or dramatic purpose.
  • Imagine an art museum where all the paintings are the same size, the same shape, and in identical frames. One fixed frame is not necessarily right for every picture. Visual variety in the screen’s proportion is useful.
  • Make new visual rules that satisfy your requirements, but whatever you decide, adhere to your rules or understand what will happen if you don’t.
  • Your own feelings about straight and curved lines will affect how you use them.
  • When there is less to look at, the audience will pay more attention to dialogue, sound effects, or music.
  • Color complicates our ability to evaluate tone, because it distracts our attention. Reducing or removing color makes evaluating tone much easier.
  • You probably are shooting in color, but evaluate your lighting by ignoring the color.
  • You must know where you want the audience to look.
  • Probably due to the misguided color education we received as children, our knowledge of color and how it works is almost unusable.
  • Don’t confuse tone with color.
  • At a certain point, discussing color becomes impossible, because words can’t accurately describe.
  • Audiences have a poor color memory. The hue, brightness, and saturation of an object’s color can be manipulated from sequence to sequence, and the audience will be unaware of the color change.
  • In a completed film, the audience should be unaware of the editing.
  • Any contrast creates intensity.
  • If you have dialogue, find the sound’s rhythm first and then let it define the visual rhythm. If there is no dialogue, using other sounds or music can help you discover the visual rhythm.
  • Keep the visual structure simple.
  • The picture maker must decide how the audience should feel emotionally about the story and the characters.
  • Instinct is an excellent way to form a point-of-view and make visual choices.
  • You may never understand why your instincts were correct, but when you see the final product you know you made the right decision.
  • Watch old movies. There are thousands of movies you haven’t seen. Do some exploring. Old movies have millions of great visual ideas to borrow or enhance.
  • Experiment. Draw something and see how it looks.
  • Discover the correct visual components by analyzing the script.
  • Approach the preparation process like a stage play. Assemble your actors and rehearse your production as if it were a theatre play. Since you can rehearse your entire script in real time, you’ll have a unique opportunity to see the story uninterrupted from beginning to end.
  • It’s easy to overthink everything and get bogged down in visual component control. Don’t let that happen—keep it simple.
  • What about spontaneity? Use it. Visual rules are a framework. You’re not going to get arrested for breaking a visual rule, but you must keep in mind how breaking a rule will affect the audience.
  • We can learn from the past.
  • The basic visual components coupled with the Principle of Contrast & Affinity will allow you to make better pictures that communicate with an audience.

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