Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.— Pablo Picasso
Words and Pictures
This book is not about film, television, comic books, cartoons or video games. This book is about visual storytelling, being defined as the art of telling a story for entertainment, education or commercialism, through the use of sequential imagery, which does include film television, comic books, cartoons and video [interactive] games. The dynamics are similar in every media, and that cross-pollinating their unique elements has elevated each art form to a higher level of sophistication and panache.
Visual storytelling is certainly not anything new, as communicating through pictures pre-dates even the written language. Although there have been many debates about what motivated Paleolithic homo sapiens to pick up charcoal, colored stone or a sharp rock to etch and illustrate the world around them, the fact of the matter is; we are a creative and expressive species. This creativity is not exclusively limited to those blessed with the gift of visual art, but also those who express their vision and ideas in everything from gardening to cooking (Mmmm, that Tarte Tatin looks good). There are many visual outlets of expressing one's creative juices, but those who choose to convey that desire through the visual arts require more transcendental vision. A talent and skill that, once conveyed into mere words, could be described as extra-sensory-perception, but there's nothing science fiction about the ability to see beyond what others can see.
Cerebral Dominance In the 1860's, neurologists Paul Broca and Karl Wernicke first discovered a fragmented cerebral dominance of human behaviors. The right side of the brain steers spatial abilities; creativity and insight, face recognition, visual imagery and music. Traditionally, these attributes have been considered more "feminine." The left-brain played a more dominant role in language, calculations, analytics and logic, or a more "masculine" role. Creativity in the visual arts, especially the arts that require technology conduits, requires a harmonious blend of mathematical wizardry and creative literacy, or internetworking of the right and left side of the brain.
When a logical, left-brain dominant persons attempts to describe the photo as depicted in Figure 1.1, initially they may only see it as Mr. Spock from Star Trek; a face, maybe with light and dark sides. However, a right-brain dominant may see beyond the face and into a wide spectrum of colors, brush strokes and moods conveying not just a face, but also the expressive story that face projects. They are more aware of the nuances of the visual world. There is a story unfolding before the reader's eyes that goes beyond their own imagination, but guided by the gradation provided by the artist himself or herself.
At a recent conference for the Society of Technical Communications, Dewitt Jones, a professional National Geographic photographer and speaker, expressed during his keynote speech that for creation to be possible, people must learn how to see what others do not. This holds true for any form of creativity. A chef can "see" the ingredients better than others, and the gardener has insight on the plants before him or her, sometimes referred to as having a green thumb. Jones also reiterated that "technique without vision is meaningless and sometimes we have to forget what we know if we're going to look at the world with fresh eyes." The visual storyteller sees life about them as artistic, as a story unfolding before them. The innovators of the visual arts can see what no one else can see and create what no one else could envision. In film, there's D.W. Griffith, Orson Welles, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarrentino, John Woo and Steven Spielberg, to name just a few. In comic books, legendary artists such as Will Eisner, Wally Wood, Neal Adams, Jim Steranko and Jack Kirby (again to name just a few) all contributed to expanding an art form beyond the printed page and stretched the imagination of a generation of readers. The motion picture and comic book are both roughly a century old. Although the concept of "interactive games" have been around for even longer than that (in other media forms) the "interactive game" as we understand it today (and the Internet), have introduced some exciting possibilities, with such talents as Robyn and Rand Miller (creators of Myst), Sigeru Miyamoto (creator of Super Mario Brothers) and Hironobu Sakaguchi (creator of Final Fantasy), but is still in it's infancy. We'll explore the enormous possibilities of the future of media convergence throughout this book.
Let's take a detour for a moment and discuss the basic premise of storytelling – sans the imagery. As Harlan Ellison so eloquently conveys in our introduction, storytelling itself requires visual expressions. Here's an example of radio theatre, limited to only words to paint an image…
"Ladies and gentlemen," gasped Carl Phillips. "This is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed…wait a minute, someone's crawling. Someone or…something. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks – are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be…good heavens, something's wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now it's another and another and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing's body. It's large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather-- but that face! It…ladies and gentlemen, it's indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it; it's so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate."
The Martians had come to New Jersey, courtesy of Orson Welles. The broadcast afforded the fictional story maximum realism by way of providing intense details of the visuals that Carl Phillips was "seeing." If no one heard the introduction of the radio show as a fictional adaptation of H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds, they had assumed it to be real because it painted the picture of being real.
Master graphic storytelling Will Eisner, in his book Graphic Storytelling describes how a story can be hinged on a joke. Although a joke is defined as "something said or done to evoke laughter or amusement," it does include the punch line, which is just the comedic term for the climax. The traditional classical structure of a three part story does come with a resolution, usually dramatic and dynamic, but for the people of New Jersey in 1938; the resolution was the punch line.
Today, as there was no one hurt during this panic of invasion, we're simply amused by this hoax and the fact that we were once so naive of media. The people were so immersed into the story, executed by a master storyteller. They didn't even need to see anything with their own eyes; they fell in and believed. It's highly unlikely that anything like this could ever happen again, as even young children understand what is real and what is not. That is, until we cross the chasm from "mock 3-D" (on a printed page or flat screen) to true holographic 3-D. Then, what will we know what is real -- by smell and touch?
We have absorbed so much visual imagery and stimuli that we're not even shocked by a chainsaw massacre, or the ravage feasting of the living dead. In 1938, there was no sophistication of the media; people believed the media, but this hoax brought on a more contemporary style of sophistication between the audience and the media. This sophistication continues to evolve as today's consumer's fuel grander more visually outrageous stimulus.
Eisner Award-winning cartoonist Jeff Smith, creator of the popular Bone comic book series firmly believes that the visuals are there to enhance the story, not the story enhancing the visuals. "You are conveying a story to your reader or audience, whether it is as a linear or interactive experience; the clarity of the story is crucial." It is true that when we see a trailer for a new movie, it's the quick cuts of dynamic scenes and wild imagery that entices us to go to the theatre or rent the movie, but when we finally sit down to watch it; it's the story we're after.
Marni Gillard, an educator and storytelling evangelist from New York, compiled the many benefits of storytelling to inspire and educate through entertainment. She is a frequent conference presenter, and the author of Storyteller, Storyteacher: The Power of Storytelling for Teaching and Living (Stenhouse, 1996) winner of a 1998 Ann Izard Storyteller's Choice Award for storytelling resources.
"As a full-time teacher I was astounded when I incorporated storytelling into my curriculum," Gillard explained. "Working up tales and performing them took time, yes, but the benefits affected the reading, writing and understanding of my students in so many ways that I felt it was well worth the time."
Bran Ferren, the Oscar-nominated former president of research and development and creative technologies for Walt Disney Imagineering has been quoted many times as an advocate of storytelling. "The core component of leadership is storytelling," Ferren believes, "How to articulate a vision and communicate it to the people around you to help accomplish the mission." Ferran was recently enlisted by the U.S. Navy to cross-pollinate the art of war with the art and science of entertainment and business. He understood that the attempted convergence may sound a bit absurd, but he's never known a great teacher, political or military leader who also wasn't a great storyteller. "Education is a storytelling problem," he insists. "Leadership is a storytelling problem."
This holds true for leadership in any field. Brian Billick and Marvin Lewis, the coach and defensive coordinator for the NFL champion Baltimore Raven use visual storytelling in every presentation. Marvin Lewis was exceptionally impressed by Brian's ability to attract the laser focus attention of the players by flashing visual stories and anecdotes. "Brian [Billick] would gather information from the Internet, our TV station and other media, then cut and paste and put it in his presentation for that Monday, Wednesday or Friday morning when he talks to the team, " said Lewis. "They get a lot more meaning out of it."
Adding a Thousand Words
The use of storytelling as a method of recording history, educating and even entertainment is as old as humankind. The human mind processes information faster and better when in the form of something as memorable and cohesive as a story. However, a word or description without visual representation leaves the door wide open for independent interpretations, which is not necessarily a bad thing in entertainment media. Ten different people might get ten different images from the same paragraph of text. Whereas showing those same ten people a single image or movie, they're all looking at the same thing, so it's more concise; the same relative experience for each person. The author thus has more control of how he wishes the audience to respond.
When we add those thousand or so words from a picture, absorption increases exponentially. Human beings do not walk around witnessing the world in words – we see pictures; living, breathing images that is the experience of life. Life itself is visual storytelling, and when we delve into the unique art forms that provide a catalyst for creating our own worlds and lives, realism is by far one of the most important elements. In order for the imagery and story to be engaging, it must seem real (see Chapter 10).
The art of visual storytelling, using documented imagery to enhance the verbal or written story is said to only be about 30,000 years old. Charcoal sketches were found underneath subsequent applications of pigment and then oddly enough, included a characteristic of outlining the figures, producing a cartoon or comic book like quality. This fact has archeologists and the scientific community in a tizzy; because of the "cartoon-economy" it signifies. The Paleolithic images of animals are all depicted in two-dimensional profiles, with poor attempts at conveying illustrative perspective. What would anyone expect from the world's first artists – Goofy? Even today, when children pick up a pencil for the first time, and begin to distinguish various shapes, they tend to either outline or encapsulate those shapes and figures like drawing two-dimensional cartoons.
Even with the advent of the ancient Egyptian culture, there was still a visual quality to the iconicity of the Egyptian language, whereas the hieroglyphics became the mainstay of communications. There were visual nuances to the communication media that overshadowed the linear symbols of the victorious alphabet we know today.
The proliferation of the symbiotic alphabet was fueled entirely by commercialism and historians. Merchants needed to be able to document their transactions more formally and faster, as business grew beyond the simple handshake. The historians wanted to record happenings for future generations. The original symbols in the first alphabet represented meaning, much like the Chinese Kanji (Chinese character), which is one of the oldest cultures on Earth. In case of the Japanese (Hiragana and Katakana), each symbol has little meaning unto itself, although, most Japanese believe that a word (not necessarily a character) has its own soul. Japanese words are combination of characters, each denoting its own sound, much like the English alphabet. The Kanji (Chinese characters) generally have a combination of sounds, which normally have meaning and entity; therefore it has its own spirit/soul.
At some point in western history, a transition took place with the emergence of alphabets representing sound components of speech. A 1978 paper for the Visual Literacy Center proclaimed that civilizations began when the invention of writing permitted the past to be recorded and examined, such as the Egyptians and Chinese. These written languages were primarily sequential arrangements of culturally significant symbols (or sequential art?). Accordingly, they were very different from the later language systems, whereas symbols represented the sounds of the spoken language. The ancient Egyptians' hieroglyphic language was based of images rather than symbols. The famous Egyptian Book of The Dead, which is dated some 1,500 BC, represents an early example of what is termed as an "illuminating manuscript," the name given to ancient writings enhanced by artistic renditions. Although, it would be safe to speculate that the Chinese, after having invented paper, most likely dabbled in coupling Kanji and pictures or artistic enhancements.
Regardless of the attempt to add immediate meaning and to "illuminate" static symbols with imagery, since the invention of the first alphabet around 3,500 B.C., a more creative, image conscious fraction of humanity took a backseat to a more linear, logical method of communication, which eventually came to imply intelligence, and thus became equated with education.
Then in the 15th Century, a metalworker and German nobleman named Johannes Gutenberg made the change permanent, with the invention of the printing press. In the fifty years that followed its introduction, approximately 35,000 different books were printed, circulating 10 million copies. The world became left-brain dominant as visual expression took a back seat to literacy and logical education.
In the past decade, the digitization of media has suddenly provided a new magic and efficiency for visual expression. This new technological advancement tripled even the amount of graphics in most newspapers throughout the world. Everything is getting "illuminated." Let's face it; images attract readers by making anything more visually appealing, stimulating and universal (you don't need to know how to read to understand what's going on).
Bob Staake is an illustrator with an impressive list of clients, including Time Inc, McDonald's and Hallmark Cards, to name just a few. He also has extensive animation experience, having done work for Nickelodeon, Hanna-Barbera, The Ren and Stimpy Show, Children's Television Workshop, Disney and Turner Broadcasting. One of his 20+ books is called Headlines, which he illustrated for Jay Leno and Staake's a regular contributor to MAD Magazine. "Yes, I agree that when I'm doing an illustration for The Wall Street Journal, my role is to illuminate a manuscript," said Staake. "Really, I've always considered myself more of a carnival barker. I mean, my role is to get the reader to go ahead and interact with that story. That's my job. I'm a guy who's standing there saying hey, there's a fat lady in the big top – come on in! You know at that point it's up to the fat lady to tell a good story."
Staake believes that are similar elements of that in animation, but there's different roles an illustrator has to play and it's all about visual attraction. "Sometimes they call me because the story is so lame, so dry, that it needs some life shot into it. Images will do that." We are indeed a predominantly visual species, and the proliferation of electronic media shooting dynamic images was a tough act to follow for any static imagery, but those media had always had their own unique attributes. As Staake reiterated, the image "shot some life into it."
Human beings do not walk around witnessing the world in words – we see pictures; living, breathing images that is the experience of life.
The images around us hold the power to hypnotize, educate or entertain, through color, beauty, and art or just simply by movement. We can sometimes process those "thousand words" in a matter of seconds, gathering more information than if we sat down and tried to read the alternative, but that's only because we already do that early day, anyway. From a purely technical standpoint, the philosophical difference between real life, which is clearly three-dimensions all around us, and the visual arts is that we attempt to make two-dimensions appear as three-dimensions or as realistic as possible within the "frame."
The frame (movie screen, television, and computer monitor and comics panel) exists because we haven't seamlessly incorporated our dynamic storytelling within three-dimensional real-time space. Humankind hasn't reached the level of media sophistication and technological ingenuity to create true-to-life realism; something that theatre has been striving for, through the better part of the last century, but there's this wall between reality and the storybook world—the aesthetic distance that was conjured up ages ago so not confuse reality with performance (like the Thermians, the race of aliens from Klatu Nebula in the movie Galaxy Quest that misinterpreted a television show for historical documents).
Film and television is delivered to the masses, without even the slightest participation from the audience (not very real, per se). There are alternatives, which provided more nominal degrees of linearism, such as silent films, comics and interactive games. However, an interactive game is not completely linear, when there are different paths and outcomes to the game. True, if consistently taking a specific path into the new world, that can be construed as linear but the initial experience overall is not. It provides a new sophisticated level to entertainment not seen since the introduction of silent films and comic books in the early part of the 20th century (see Chapter 4: Scene-to-Scene and Chapter 3: Panel-to-Panel).
Silent films propagated in the early part of the 20th Century and lacked just enough of reality to provide a much different experience than the movies and television we know today-- sound. Yes, it's really nice to actually be able to hear the dialogue and special effects, but the silent film gave that element to the audience, drawing them into participating, much like the comics experience, where the reader imagines life like motion, but without dynamic visuals.
Comics are unique as the only limits to the storytelling medium are the artist's imagination and skill. The stories provided a canvas for unlimited budgets, special effects and characters, drawn with enough realism that it was engaging. The lack of "sound" in the experience also offered that same level of personalization that silent movies provided, but in full color, and timed at the audience's own pace (rather than the Director's). How the audience experiences reading comics is just as important to the experience as the content itself. In animation or film, all the senses, with the exception of smell, are stimulated, thus making the experience very passive. The audience sits and watches what happens, paced to how the filmmaker has chosen to lead. There is no other way to experience the visual story, thus it's very linear.
Mary Jo Duffy, writer of many comic books such as Star Wars, Fallen Angels and Catwoman believed that comics have an advantage, above and beyond any other form of visual media, because dynamic visual media is limited to what the Director wants you to experience. "You know exactly what's going on and how much and how far, and comics liberates the mind and the imagination, and you have to feel things out, they're not laid out in front of you entirely." She compares comics to shorthand. "If you insist on using eight pictures where one will do, then you're losing some of the shorthand and you're spelling things out a little too much. I don't think comics are losing its uniqueness, but maybe if we get too much into cinemagraphic techniques, we're losing our edge."
Comics are still only static images; panel-to-panel highlights of the most important elements of the scene (the "extremes") to keep your interest, and create realistic expectations with a clear path. The element of time moves differently as the reader is more in control of the experience as opposed to the writer or artist. A reader can dwell on a single panel or page as long as they want to and/or the writer and artist can produce a page with enough information to slow the reader down, as part of the experience. Consequently, the comic experience is more interpersonal than interactive. Interpersonal is when the audience contributes a piece of themselves to the experience, making it somewhat unique and enjoyable to everyone. Interpersonal media, such as the old silent movies or comics, is where the visual storyteller requires contributions from the participant (reader or viewer). In other words, when you're watching a silent movie, you personally-- by your own tastes, likes and dislikes are contributing the city sounds, voices and sound effects. In comics, you're also contributing the motion, effects and timing (by even turning the page). In many ways, comics are more like silent films, books or radio dramas, each media type requiring the individual too personally or intimately, participate in the experience, rather than merely watching it or forming it.
Above is a Taxonomy of Visual Storytelling, segregating the order of visual storytelling media into various groups; the two primary families are static & dynamic, static being the printed page or web page and dynamic meaning having motion. The genuses are "luminear" (pronounced as lum-in-ee-ar), which is a combination of "illuminated" and "linear." These are the magazines and static web pages that use imagery to "illuminate" the manuscript or text with imagery. Again, "interpersonal" is like interactive, but with a core differentiator, as "interactive" has taken on a specific meaning in the lexicon; relating to "video games" or "multimedia."
The primary advantage of interpersonal media, such as comic books (using sequential art to tell a story) over interactive games or a movie is that it becomes a more intimate experience; a one on one experience. John Byrne, author, 3D animator and respected comic book artist, believes that comic book readers somewhat believe that there's a conversation happening between themselves and the writer, which is why they'll sometimes get offended when upon meeting that writer, the writer doesn't continue the conversation, because the conversation for the writer is actually a monologue. "That's something that comics have to offer," Byrne said. "They are much more intimate—more personal."
Linear storytelling is film or animation; a "sit-back" type of media, and interactive is a "lean forward" like media. The audience is contributing to the creation of the story, but not necessarily providing any interpersonal elements.
Interpersonal is when the audience contributes a piece of themselves to the experience, making it somewhat unique and enjoyable to everyone.
Of course, each category has its own species; comic books, comic strips and even certain sequentially illustrated children's books fall under interpersonal, while movies and television fit within linear storytelling.