How every frame tells a story

Humans are visual creatures led by their vision. We're all shaped by stories: we love telling them, we love reading them – and filmmaking is an incredibly powerful tool for sharing them. In film every single frame works to tell the overall story.

Why visual storytelling?

Traditionally, stories were passed down from generation to generation by the storyteller – someone whose job it was to share the stories which help us to make sense of our world. Today, we receive our stories primarily through screens: the television screen, the digital screen, the tablet, the mobile device.

Humans are visual creatures led by their vision. Our eyes are the lens through which we make sense of the world. Neurons devoted to visual processing take up about 30 % of the cortex, as compared with 8 % for touch and just 3 % for hearing.

Visual information such as, size, shape and movement are all processed in an instant. In film, and other visual communications, this has developed into a visual language, which we interpret and make sense of.

The power of visual storytelling, is its ability to be interpreted in a moment. Visual storytelling can help make complex stories easier to understand and, as a result, deliver a more impactful message. Rather than relying on lengthy interviews to convey story, telling a story visually results in greater engagement and is more likely to move an audience to take action. These are crucial considerations when crafting stories for the Third Sector, where taking action and changing opinions is important.

Every frame tells a story

The creative process of storytelling in film and documentary film begins with one frame. One photograph, or frame, can be interpreted by humans within 13 milliseconds. In the craft of visual storytelling, having 24 frames a second to tell a story becomes a powerful tool.

Storytellers need a language through which they can articulate their story. Traditionally, they used the spoken word or song. At the end of the 19th century, the Kinetographic camera (the movie camera) was invented as a tool that could be used to tell stories through moving images.

The earliest films tended to lack a story structure, instead just capturing movement, but as the medium became more popular filmmakers developed a ‘film language’ – or a set of grammar rules for how to tell stories on film.

Visual storytelling and filmmaking start with one frame. Frames become scenes, a few scenes combined become sequences, and several different sequences form an act. These building blocks are made of footage from multiple angles that help tell a story. The smallest block is the frame, and a collection of frames between two cuts is a shot in film language. Subsequently, a scene is a combination of shots that show unity of time and place. Once diverse scenes are connected through a common storyline, a sequence is formed. Finally, the biggest unit is an act made of several different sequences with a common plot. Story happens across all of these.

In every documentary film, video and photograph we create, every single frame works to tell the overall story.

The toolbox

The visual storyteller has many tools to harness the full power of the image in communicating story, mood and emotion and ultimately driving an audience to take action.

Understanding and articulating the full range of visual tools means audiences are more likely to be moved, informed, or inspired to take action or make change.

Framing. Framing is everything. It is the first visual suggestion for telling the story. Fundamentally, it is all about composition and the placement and position of the subjects in your shots. Everything within the frame should communicate the story and propel it forward. This is the foundation for filmmakers and cinematographers to tell a story visually, helping to convey a lot of different information.

Lens choice. The focal length and aperture are going to determine how people perceive the world in the film as they regulate the depth of field. This is where the real story comes from; it is with these technical choices that we control what is in focus, and what is out of focus. A telephoto lens makes it possible to capture the subject with precision as it blurs out the background and separates the subject. Conversely, a wide-angle lens brings the audience into the context of a story space.

Movement. The way a camera shifts to visually narrate and shape a viewer’s perspective of a scene can enhance a film’s story. Since the camera is an audience’s eyes on a story, using camera movements can make scenes more interesting, add realism (especially for documentary storytelling), and mimic human movement.

Lighting. Lighting can highly affect the mood of a film. It can help the audience understand what they are supposed to be feeling. It reveals context clues about the scenes and the plot line. Abnormal color changes for instance can indicate hallucinations, dreams, and past encounters. Ultimately, the eye is drawn to the brightest element in a scene.

Colour. Colour is a powerful tool to communicate emotional ideas. Blue is most often associated with cool, calm feelings, while warmer colors like red arouses passionate or aggressive emotions. Understanding colour psychologyin documentary filmmaking helps to ensure that the scenes and shots are more meaningful.

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