Picture this: You’re walking down the sidewalk when you hear violent clanging piano notes and you’re suddenly covered by a shadow. You look up, and see a grand piano swinging above you by a quickly unraveling rope as the wood creaks and a voice yells “Look out!” Do you feel yourself recoil, your pulse quicken?
This is the second in our series on the importance of storytelling techniques in video production. Here, we’ll take a quick look at how the most basic elements of camera perspective, the order of shots, the power of visuals alone and the sum of visuals and audio together work to captivate the human mind. Video is an attention magnet, with the ability to shape emotion, understanding and engagement like no other medium of communication. Let’s look at why that is.
1. The Camera: The Mind’s Eye
Our mind relates to a camera’s point of view as if we are watching a reality through our own eyes. What was so powerful about the dangling piano story? If you saw that scene in real life, you would probably be terrified! That first-person perspective is the power video has over any other communication medium. Where the camera is, the viewer’s eyes are.
Your audience will see situations, characters and scenes as you want them to be seen. Angle a bird’s eye view to make them feel omniscient or walk them through a scene slowly to build suspense. Composition, color, lighting and movement influence the emotional tone of a camera shot. Unlike in real life, the camera’s perspective is the only one we get. Conscious use of it can guide the viewer’s mind to help tell a story. We can surprise viewers, add to what they know, and increase involvement as the story unfolds.
2. Editing: The Story Progresses
Each shot and the order in which you see it can be carefully selected to move the story forward. What to show and when to show it is at the heart of the most powerful storytelling technique of the medium. If the next shot in our piano story were to reveal that all of this danger is actually part of an amusement park ride, our idea of what’s going on would change significantly, stirring our story with an interesting twist.
Carefully and consciously created visuals alone can craft a wonderful narrative, and our visually-oriented brains will follow along, even when there are no words. Check out this clip from Disney Pixar’s UP.
A couple’s entire life together is movingly summarized without a single word. We’ll be surprised if you don’t have a bit of water in your eyes by the end. (Note the foreshadowing use of balloons to lift objects–a big part of the story later.)
3. Sound: It’s Half the Picture
Think about the dangling piano again–you don’t just see the giant shadow on the ground and the fraying rope above you. You also hear the creak as it swings in the breeze, the discordant music from the wires inside and the panic in the voices of the people urging you away from its path. Sound can “show” things that aren’t seen, and can be used to add depth, atmosphere and realism to scenes.
The most obvious role of sound as a storytelling element is in music, which underscores the mood of a scene. Musical themes can be used to great effect, especially when played more than once to reemphasize a situation or feeling.
“Jaws” would have been an entirely different movie without those two thematic notes.
Listen to the way the sound effects and music propel the story here in an excerpt from “Slumdog Millionaire.” Try listening with your eyes closed and you’ll still get the picture.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many is a video worth?
Video communicates depth, complexity, and nuance in a way our brains are naturally attuned to pick up: we understand more than just what we’re seeing on the surface. Understanding how to use every storytelling tool the medium provides involves science and art. How will you tell your story?