Film: How To Be A Visual Storyteller

October 17, 2013 General 0 Comments

Visual StorytellerIt’s much more than lights, camera, action.

And, despite today’s blockbusters, it’s also more than special effects. Film is about the story – and without incorporating visual storytelling techniques into your work, your script might not transition well to the screen. You might come up short.

At Brooks, we don’t want that to happen to you. We want you to create visually stimulating films that inspire and capture the attention of your audiences. Read to discover the tradition of visual storytelling and examples from two films – the classic Citizen Kane and the critically acclaimed Black Swan.

Visual Storytelling

When film was first developed, directors could not rely on sound to convey meaning to their audiences – they simply didn’t have the technology. Screen Online writer Mark Duguid says, “The limitations of the silent form led filmmakers to develop a visual language to enable them to say with images what they could not using dialogue or sound.”

Placement on screen was incredibly important, as was body language. Directors and actors had to carefully consider what was captured on screen. It was subtle elements such as what the actors were looking at, how they moved and how they positioned themselves that conveyed the most to audiences.

In fact, Duguid notes that by the time sound arrived in 1927, visual storytelling in film was so sophisticated that “sound was felt by some to be almost unnecessary.” Others, including the infamous Alfred Hitchcock, believed the arrival of sound undermined the film industry. Directors were no long required to focus on these visually storytelling techniques – sound allowed dialogue to do most of the work.


  1. Citizen Kane Of Citizen Kane, Roger Ebert said, “You have to be an active viewer – it challenges you.” The film is considered one of the best American films ever produced. At the time, it was innovative. It utilized uncommon storytelling and production techniques – and this is that focus on storytelling that made it remarkable. Presentation designer Garr Reynolds notes the use of makeup to age the actors, the physicality which Welles brought to the screen, the natural feel of the dialogue achieved by allowing actors to cross-talk, the smooth transitions and continuity achieved by J-cuts, the unusual camera angles, the long scenes without cutting and the use of subjective camera techniques. These elements combine to create fascinating flashbacks that make the non-linear plot understandable, enjoyable and enthralling. There are two very important techniques that specifically emphasize visual storytelling, however. The first is the development of “rhythmic patterns.” Reynolds explains that this is the juxtaposition of slowly developed scenes with fast-paced montages. This allows for both subdued shots and dynamic shots – which contrast with one another and create a rhythm that holds the audience’s attention. The other is the camera technique known as “deep focus,” which allows everything in a shot to be in focus. Often, directors will use soft focus in either the background or foreground to emphasize the in-focus subject. But, when everything is in focus, the director must use different techniques to emphasize his subjects. In Citizen Kane, lighting was often used. Framing was another technique the director used to emphasize background characters. This gave the film more dimension and made the shots more complex – in some ways, it even helped develop symbols for the plot and emphasize important details.
  2. Black Swan According to writer Patrick Kirkland, Black Swan was an especially notable film among the other Best Picture nominees in 2011 because of its emphasis on showing rather than telling. This visual storytelling skill emphasizes symbolism and themes rather than dialogue. Kirkland says, “What starts off as a story about a disgruntled ballerina turns into a visual feast, where single images become major turns, one motif after another culminating in a rich feast for the eyes.” The motifs are made evident to the audience in the form of the ballet, Nina’s double, and the swan. The end of the film brings many of these images together as Nina reaches a psychotic breaking point.

Use these two examples as reference points for making your film projects more detailed. Visual storytelling emphasizes the need for detail, symbolism and even intricacy to make a motion picture more dramatic. It allows a film to become more than a motion picture.

Learn more about these techniques and others at Brooks Institute.


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