Storytelling through images
Storytelling is one of the most inherent parts of being human. Since the beginning of time, ancient civilizations have been telling stories with pictures. Some use a form of hieroglyphs, while others use images as illustrations. As a storytelling race, we have continually evolved from cave paintings to web pages, hieroglyphics to comic strips.
It’s imperative to remember that we wouldn’t know anything of our past without storytelling. We would have no context for our existence without nonfiction. We would have no idea how our ancestors migrated from here to there, how they learned to hunt, or how to drive a car. There are countless things in our lives–arguably everything in our lives–that we could not do, say, or learn without some sort of storytelling mechanism.
Without the storytelling desires deep inside of us, it would be rather difficult to rely on purely the written or spoken word. If you had someone explain how an automobile engine worked without moving their hands or drawing any pictures or pointing to any diagrams, how long would it take you to truly understand? And on top of that, how difficult would it be to then apply what you’ve learned (by pure abstract spoken or written language) on an actual engine repair? It would be virtually impossible, or it would at least take a very long time.
The phrase, “a picture tells a thousand words” could not be truer. We rely on images to explain things that simply could not be explained in words. The language of Emojis brings up an entirely new way to communicate as well. It brings emotion to our textual conversations, by virtually sending small hieroglyphs or icons to one another. Each Emoji acts as a letter in the alphabet of emotion. As we develop better understanding for the language that these small images portray, we’ll inevitably learn how to enhance our textual and interpersonal storytelling skills.
In November 2014, my solo band, Shadow Windhawk and the Morticians, made its first ever music video. I produced the video and hired my friend and local filmmaker, Adam Judd, to direct it. I decided that I wanted to pay tribute to the “Halloween” slasher horror franchise by doing a video for my song, “Halloween ’63”, which loosely retells the story of the night Michael Myers murdered his sister in 1963 until the night he returned home to kill again, fifteen years later (in the lyrics). The process began with me fleshing out the basic storyline against the music, which is to say I came up with a bunch of shots I wanted and then brought them to Adam. I gave Adam my production budget and my ideas and he hired a crew and rented a Red Epic to shoot the video. I brought on a stunt actor named Jason Brentner to play Michael Myers and had my guitarist, Tony, play the victims in the video. I contacted the owners of a local mansion in Aves which was used as the Michael Myers’ House in “Halloween 5” (filmed mainly in Salt Lake City). I asked permission to use the house for exterior shots and they agreed, which was amazing. I then bought a replica Michael Myers mask, knife and jumpsuit and modified them to look more authentic using acrylic paint and spray paint. We assembled my band and the film crew with props, sets, equipment and makeup ready to go on November 7th 2014 and shot the entire video in one day, using the Castle of Chaos Haunted House in Taylorsville for interior shots and the Myers Mansion in the Avenues of SLC for exteriors. My band spent $1,000 producing the video. We ended up releasing it on YouTube officially in December 2014. The video has had a very positive response for the most part and I’m quite proud of how it turned out.
You can check it out for yourselves at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Qnt4ltdMB4
Visuals are powerful. Many people believe that we see with our eyes but the truth is that we see with our brains. That means that the apple we see is actually different than the same apple the person next to us sees. What we see is ruled by our memories, our interests, our past experiences and our expectations. When we are presented a visual, the denotation is present and we perceive it but the connotation is where the true power stands because that’s how we really see things, pulling from connotation to try and interpret what the author/ artist is trying to make us feel.
The first thing that happens when we see something is we make associations with our past experiences and establish a first impression based on previously established impressions of similar things. What makes visuals so powerful is that while it can be interpreted many ways, it is also universal. Cultural differences and personal experiences influence how an individual interprets it and the details of what he gets out of a visual but the big picture will always emerge, triumphant. We see red, orange, yellow and it evokes a feeling of warmth while blue, purple and green we associate with cold things. Folded bed sheets, a sun soaked patio, chairs at a dinning room table that are a little out of place, a pair of shoes lazily scattered near the doorway, each of these have different meanings to everyone but overall there’s a sense of a lived-in home and a sense of comfort and ease. Visuals are powerful because they’re not just images shoved in front of our face but things that we have to first connect to on multiple levels in order to actually see it.
Storytelling has been around since humans have. Humans have a natural inkling to tell stories and to document the things that have been done. We are able to distinguish history from carvings on cave walls and etchings in stone and recreate these stories from the past. Even though what we think of as the classic story format is written word, visuals are easier to process. If you look at the history of visuals then compare it with the history of written word you see a difference in how the two originated. That difference in and of itself is a good example of how visuals can be easier to distinguish than written language.
Written language took time to establish and in many cases was started only after drawing became inconvenient. Written word has to be taught and takes time to master. In contrast, visuals, with one glance we can glean the emotions expressed, the people involved, where the story takes place, if there are any problems, what the people look like and tons of other things that would take lots of time to describe in words. Visuals are also accessible to anyone from any background. To interpret visuals you don’t have to be a master at a language and you can still have an idea of how to interpret the story that is happening.
The ability to read visuals and to create a story from looking at a picture is something that comes innate. When you think through things, you typically don’t think in written language but rather in pictures. By using visuals as a convenient way to tell stories, you control exactly what people are seeing and how they are reacting to your story. Other mediums don’t have this advantage and because of this visuals are an easy way to tell stories and reach a broad realm of people.
We live in a world where pictures are ubiquitous. We see images everyday. Advertisements always use them, as images can say more than words at first sight, and advertising is everywhere. The problem with images is that they mean something different to everyone. An image of a tree, translated through a billion different filters, has a billion different meanings. So when we use images to tell stories, we are hoping that our audience interprets them the way we intended to convey them, and that is a very rare occurrence in my experience. Our perception is made up of our individual experiences and the experiences before those experiences that shaped the way we experienced that experience. Needless to say, even people who have very similar experiences or upbringings have drastically different perspectives of the world. This idea of individual perception or cognition can lead to major failures of communication, even with something as precise as oral communication, as we all often have miscommunications with people, and here lies the problem with story telling through images: we never know what that image will convey to that particular person. In some situations that can actually be a very powerful tool, but in other situations a very dangerous one. I believe in precision of language because I believe that communicating effectively means communicating ideas correctly with little to no ambiguity. Images, unfortunately, are very hard to make unambiguous, and very hard to make precise.
This is maybe a little on the fringe but bear with me. As one of our primary senses, the visual is intrinsic to our identity and communication with ourselves and others. Images resonate cognitive processes deep within us that we aren’t even aware exist. These processes strike the cords of memory and emotion and consequently, have roots in the past and tendrils reaching into the future. Other visuals are a myriad of complex cultural and social semiotics that we use to connect to ourselves and one another in the hope of reaching some level of understanding. The tarot is an example of visual storytelling that uses semiotics to connect with the self. Each card has a different story but like most visual stories it tells a different story to every audience. Most tarot decks follow accepted patterns, or suits, as the cards were derived from the standard playing deck. However, the images on the decks are completely unique, and color themes and symbols are a function of the artist’s discretion. The cards are then interpreted at the audience’s discretion and are subject to their equally unique social, cultural and internal programing. I’m in a class that teaches how to read the tarot and I thought it was really ironic that our first activity tonight was called “five card storyboard.” We were instructed to shuffle and cut the deck, select the top five cards and create a story from the cards. We were told to ignore the meanings and symbols, or connotations, of the cards and focus solely on the denotation or what was present on the cards to create our story. Below are a few of my favorite cards from Shadowscapes Tarot by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law.
Throughout the past week we have been discussing the different platforms and outlets we can post our digital work, specifically for the aspect of visual storytelling. I think Etsy is a great website for creators and artists to spread their talent and gain attention in an online space. Through Etsy, creators and businesses can post examples of their work and what they can do in a very organized way (similar to Pinterest) as well as showcase their work next to others. People can favorite and share a creator’s work as well as buy and order through the website. Another aspect I find very interesting about this platform is that consumers can communicate with the creator directly, which is very powerful in gaining feedback on your work and explaining your pieces.
I think the visual storytelling field is shifting to this type of space, and I think these types of websites are a great outlet for us to use as a portfolio as well as see what other designers and storytellers are presenting. Visual storytelling is such a broad field with a broad base for an audience. As storytellers we need to “brand” ourselves in a certain type of visual storytelling and excel in that specific area. Etsy provides a great way to label your work for the exact audience you’re wanting.
I want to share an example of really cool digital storytelling I saw tonight. As much as I love Modern Family I hardly ever watch it. I am usually doing homework in the evenings and can’t watch TV. I decided to take a mental break tonight and saw that Modern Family was on so I stopped to watch the last 10-15 minutes. I missed the first half so I can’t say if the entire episode was filmed this way although I would guess it was since the last half was. As I was watching Modern Family my TV looked as though I was looking at a computer screen. There was a desktop background with icons, minimized programs and FaceTime windows were open. The characters were all in different locations and the entire episode was us watching their FaceTime conversations. We were watching through Claire’s screen and could see what she was doing. While having multiple FaceTime conversations with her kids, husband and extended family we also watched her activities online. She logged onto Facebook, looked through her daughters profiles, had chat windows open which she was carrying conversation on and at one point even opened her picture file and flipped through pictures of her daughter Haley.
You never saw a filmed scene. The entire episode (from what I saw) was done entirely through the new digital world of video chats, social media and online messaging. I think that had I watched this episode a few months ago I obviously would have noticed the difference but wouldn’t have paid much attention to it. Watching it tonight after being in this class made me start to think about this new take on storytelling. Taking a television series and “filming” it entirely through the lens of digital technology and social media and showcasing how different our world is today with how we communicate was really interesting and really well done in this case.
Considering that I essentially came into this class with little knowledge of visual storytelling, I feel like I’ve left with a much better understanding of what it is and the effort that goes into it. A few weeks ago, I would simply see images, even visually astounding ones such as material such a National Geographic as merely photographs. Now I’m starting to see and critically think about the stories that people intentionally create in other sorts of media such as photographs and even websites such as the great portfolio example shown in class today.
I’m happy to say that this new knowledge of visual storytelling is going to pair nicely with my Advanced Web Design (in which we have to build a demo ice cream website), and business class (where we think about advertising and marketing). I plan on trying to share my newfound knowledge with my teammates on the ice cream site as we try and sell the product to the customer, and apply it to my business class in thinking about business advertising, particularly commercials, and how some of them attempt to create a visual story that convinces the customer to buy their product.
Now I suppose the only major part left for me in the visual storytelling portion of this class is creating my own. I’ve never been that talented when it comes to creating anything visual, really, but hopefully with an armament of Google Images, Adobe Illustrator, and GIMP, I can pull my creative resources together and make my visual story ideas into something meaningful.