In the last letter I told you about the big task of a visual storyteller: making the invisible visible.
In particular, turning those infrared abstract concepts and ultra-violet emotions into rainbow light the naked eye can see.
In this letter, I want to show you one of my favourite ways to square the circle, to make the invisible visible.
Miss Lonely Hearts
There’s a filmmaking technique I have observed in a few rare instances.
When I first saw it, it struck me as absolute dynamite — a creative and subtle translation of an invisible idea into a visible event, that was not just original but surprising, idiosyncratic and packed with emotion all at once.
This technique feels — to me at least — as elusive as a snow leopard; I can count only a few times where I have seen it used to its full effect.
One such time is in Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
The bed-bound voyeur Jimmy Stewart is looking out over the courtyard of his apartment when he sees a neighbour opposite preparing a romantic meal.
Watch what happens:
Hitchcock wanted to show us the invisible concept of loneliness.
He didn’t just create a person performing loneliness (“I’m so lonely!"); and he didn’t create a person merely experiencing loneliness — for example, having a date cancel on them or watching them throw a calendar in the trash.
He pushed it beyond the obvious and created a unique — some might say bizarre — behaviour that renders the emotion visible and unforgettable: a woman, so desperately lonely, she hosts an imaginary boyfriend in her kitchen.
This — for my money — is stellar visual storytelling.
To loop it back to last Sunday’s letter, the Miss Lonely Hearts scene is an elaborate Index Sign - we see the invisible emotion not directly, but by it’s affect on something else: her behaviour.1
I have never seen the technique described in any filmmaking textbook before (and I’ve read my share); so I gave it my own name — The Golden Action.2
As I said, I have only seen it used a handful of times - but I think I have seen the very first time it was ever used on screen.
I feel confident saying that because it’s in a film that is more than 110 years old, directed by the criminally under appreciated Alice Guy-Blaché.3
The film is called Falling Leaves, and it hinges on another unique, weird and memorable behaviour that makes the invisible visible.
The film opens with a young woman struck down with Scarlet Fever, being told by a doctor she has just days to live. The doctor gives his diagnosis rather poetically, declaring that by the time the last leaf falls from the tree outside, the young woman will have passed.
This woman has a little sister, she must be five or six years old, who is distressed by the news.
But the girl doesn’t just perform her sadness.
Instead, she gets some string from a drawer and then steps into the garden to do something unexpected and heartbreaking (Skip to the 6 minute mark to see it):
By trying to tie the falling leaves back onto the tree she is desperately hoping she can keep her sister alive.
Grief and fear, made visible. That’s a Golden Action!4
A Golden Action is a way a director or comics artist can really stamp their creative voice on a story, solving the problem in a unique and individualistic way no-one else could ever predict.
Have you caught sightings of the elusive Golden Action in the wild? I’d love to build up a library of examples! In the meantime, I hope it’s a technique that inspires you in whatever project you are working on.
Don’t forget there’s a growing library of visual storytelling tips right here 👇
That said, it also relies on several Symbolic Signs and our agreed understanding that lighting candles and pouring red wine means romance. ↩︎
Better name suggestions eagerly accepted! I am also very open to hearing this technique does already have a name, I just haven’t seen it before! ↩︎
She’s widely considered the first woman film director and her contribution to the medium in its infancy was huge. But she was forgotten for many decades because, well, sexism. ↩︎
I would love to claim that Guy-Blaché came up with this Golden Action herself; it seems that the story was an adaptation of a popular Edwardian song - everything is a remix! ↩︎
Until another Sunday soon,