A truth so basic about visual storytelling that it is often left unsaid (and therefore ought to be occasionally said); is that whatever your story is about, it must be visible to the naked eye.
To quote the meme: pics or it didn’t happen.
While there is greater freedom for comics artists and animators, if you’re a filmmaker (or photographer) then you are locked in by this principle.
The camera’s medium is light, baby, and whatever you want to show, it’s gotta reflect those photons!
How do you photograph loneliness? How do you make fear, boredom, angst, regret or lust visible to the naked eye? Or, for the nonfiction filmmakers in the room, how do you visualise the second law of thermodynamics or the nuances of economics?
I think 80% of the brainwork of being a visual storyteller is trying to square this circle: our stories are often about abstract concepts, invisible emotions, but they are lifeless unless we can make them seen!
Raised to communicate with words, not pictures, this doesn’t come naturally to many of us.
When I used to run visual storytelling workshops I would often start with an exercise asking students to storyboard a short film that conveyed the idea of “boredom”. The students (bless them, for it was 9.30 in the morning and the caffeine hadn’t sunk in) looked confused before quickly sketching out an idea that was invariably: film someone looking bored, get them to sigh and look at their watch for good measure.
Performing an emotion is one way of making it visible, sure, but it’s only one step up from the cringe lines of dialogue where a character declares their emotion out loud.
“I’m so bored!”
It’s all telling, not showing.
Visual storytellers like words, but we know that our mediums gift us more direct and effective tools for hitting the heartstrings, bypassing the rational verbal centres of the brain.
The signs are everywhere
The job — as I have said before (#036) — is making the invisible visible.
One thing that has helped me hugely in the last ten or so years of my film and comics work is learning about semiotics.
This is the study of signs1 — a study that is, frankly, needlessly complicated.
I’ll spare you the lecture (until my forthcoming Skillshare class lol) but the gist of it is that the images we see and the meaning they create in our minds are two separate things.
And more than that, the meaning is influenced by our past experiences and associations.
In this way, a sign (an image, an action, an object, a shot, a panel) can imbue meaning beyond what it actually represents.
A bouquet of flowers is just a bouquet of flowers — but given as a gift, it means “I love you” or “please forgive me”.2
Semiotics and smiley faces
A good way to see this concept in action is to open up the emoji library on your phone. It’s full of visual icons that represent invisible ideas and emotions — provided you know the language.
Semioticians break signs down into three major categories, which I shall now attempt to explain using emojis:
First there are Iconic Signs: these are images that do what they say on the tin. You don’t need to be a detective to figure out what the sender is trying to communicate.
When someone sends you a message with these emojis you know what the plan is for the evening, and the reason - and even what time it starts!
🎂 🥂 🎉 🕤
All images that represent something in the physical world are, at one level, iconic signs.
Secondly, there are Index Signs: these are images that communicate an invisible idea by showing its effect on something we can see.
You can’t see wind, but you can see its effect on the rustling leaves, the bowing branches.
Human behaviour and action are all index signs: an invisible emotion has a visible effect on how people move their bodies.
A simple gesture of the arms and shoulders communicates a complex idea: “I don’t know, and to be honest, I don’t really care.”
And, with a little help from Jean Luc Picard, a placement of the hand communicates: “I am totally frustrated to the point of dismay.”
Finally, there are Symbolic Signs: these images have no obvious association with their intended meaning, but instead rely on shared cultural knowledge to bridge the gap.
Some are universal…❤️…some require a shared knowledge of literature…🤥…and some an awareness of internet culture…🍆.
Symbolic signs are powerful because you can teach your audience to associate a meaning with any image, and then detonate it at will.
And the meaning is fluid. Twenty years ago, emailing someone a photograph of an aubergine did not mean “wanna hookup?” Now it is loaded with that connotation, to the extent that a filmmaker or cartoonist (assuming they knew their audience well), could imply a specific type of sexual encounter just by showing a close up of that vegetable.
Over the next few Sundays I want to share with you some practical strategies for making these principles work for you in your filmmaking or comics storytelling.
In the meantime, I’m building up a neat little library of practical advice on visual storytelling, useful for filmmakers, screenwriters and comics artists. The button below will take you there! 👇
Until another Sunday soon,