Thoughts on visual storytelling

So I have just finished my first Raindance project skills lab.  Before I get my breakfast (I’m hungry) I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect.

The project skills lab was delivered by the awesome Ruth Paxton, a Scottish writer / director who produces artistic dialogue-free films that capture emotion, the feeling of the character and are seemingly quite often sexually charged.  This is a million miles away from what I want to achieve as a documentary filmmaker.  However, I was keen to join the project skills lab this morning as 1) you should never turn down opportunities to learn and widen your understanding, and 2) the topic was on creating visual style.

To me, the lack of visual style and storytelling is what is most prominently missing from health-related films coming from academia.  Despite film being a visual medium, it seems that there is often little thought on what is portrayed within the frame when shooting an interview or how any b-roll included portrays information about the story or the emotion of the speaker.  I believe this would make these films much more engaging to the audience, and hopefully giving them greater impact.  It is something I am interested in pursuing more deeply in my Masters’ program and so was interested to listen what Ruth had to say on set design and props to aid the storytelling and emotion.

I share Ruth’s vision of wish to create visually interesting film that helps portray the story and not detract from it.  Ruth discussed how for her in viewing We need to Talk About Kevin how she became distracted from the story of the film looking at a particular scene set against the background of cans of soup in a supermarket aisle where all the cans had the director’s names on it.  Portraying the story should be the ultimate goal of the film and therefore anything that distracts or detracts from it is bad.  In the genre that I am interested in, it could be that something distracting in the background that has not been moved out of shot like a chair within an office which is encroaching on the scene or a plant in the background seemingly protruding from the interviewee’s head.  It is a pet peeve of mine as to me it either says that there is lack of attention to detail or the filmmaker does not feel that it is important.  I do think it is important and therefore was already thinking about this but Ruth really brought it home by saying everything that is a scene with subliminally give a message to the audience and therefore if something is not supposed to be there, remove it. That’s good advice!

Within her dramatic films Ruth tries to think about what is portrayed on screen and how that reflects the world that her characters live in.  Obviously, I will be portraying real rather than imagined characters but I think there is the potential through use of key items to portray something about their character.  This is one of the things that I liked about the interview set-up in Bill Cunningham, New York where, for example, Iris Apfel was surrounded by her luxurious fabrics and quirky knick knacks which portray her style very well.

Ruth also commented on other aspects which so far I have not given so much thought to including use of colour and the psychology of a space.  These are potential avenues to explore; a patient feeling overwhelmed by navigating through the hospital system could, for example, be portrayed by wide angle scene in which they are very small in the frame compared to the hospital, or navigating through a maze in order to depict their confusion.

Years of completing a photo-a-day has made me quite astute to elements of a scene, I now need to advance my thinking to the visual language around that and the psychology of what each image tells.  I look forward to the challenge


2 thoughts on “Thoughts on visual storytelling

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this Clare. This is really useful.
    Good reflection as well on how to incorporate visual storytelling in your health related docus.


  2. I’m focusing mostly on the visual aspects and how to use color within my mastery. I’m going to have to watch this skills lab! I think as a creative, the visual elements are so important to engage us and speak to us.


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