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Video, Part 2: Visual Storytelling

June 30, 2009
Hitchcock:Truffaut

Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window

Film and video have a language of their own. It’s a visual language that combines the principles and aesthetics of shot composition with how individual shots are edited together. It’s a world in which images have power: 1) in and of themselves, and 2) because of where you place them in relation to each other.

One of the masters of visual storytelling was film director, Alfred Hitchcock. In French filmmaker and critic Francois Truffaut‘s landmark book, Hitchcock/Truffaut, Truffaut asserts that “Hitchcock is one of the greatest innovators of form in the history of cinema,” and that with Hitchcock, “form does not merely embellish content, it actually creates it.”

In looking at Hitchcock’s body of work, he clearly created content through visual form. Hitchcock mastered the art of the montage in which meaning changes depending on how shots are juxtaposed. In Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock acknowledged his work in cinema grew out of foundational work on montage by Russian filmmakers, such as V.I. Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein, and describes how they were trained in the art of montage relating it to one of his films:

You see a close-up of the Russian actor, Ivan Mosjoukine. This is immediately followed by a shot of a dead baby. Back to Mosjoukine again and you read compassion on his face. Then you take away the dead baby and you show a plate of soup, and now when you go back to Mosjoukine, he looks hungry. Yet, in both cases, they used the same shot of the actor; his face was exactly the same.

In the same way, [referring to his film, Rear Window] let’s take a close-up of Stewart looking out of the window at a little dog that’s being lowered in a basket. Back to Stewart, who has a kindly smile. But if in the place of the little dog you show a half-naked girl exercising in front of her open window, and you go back to a smiling Stewart again, this time he’s seen as a dirty old man!

This is all right brain stuff talked about by author Daniel Pink in his book, A Whole New Mind, and made possible because our right brains make meaning out of what we see. Other directors have been brilliant in using the language of film to tap into our right brains and “connect seemingly unrelated ideas into something new,” as Daniel Pink puts it. In a recent post, High Concept, High Touch Marketing, I described how director Oliver Stone used the right brain of his audience members to contrast the beauty of nature with the nature of man in his film, Platoon. And Woody Allen, not known as a pure visual storyteller, combined all the elements of the visual language in his masterpiece, Interiors.

But it was Hitchcock who mastered the principles of the montage. And perhaps the greatest example of pure visual storytelling by Hitchcock is his film, Rear Window, a film in which the camera never leaves the apartment of Jimmy Stewart’s character until the end of the movie, but yet allows for all of us to become emotionally involved in the lives played out in the other apartments that we see through Stewart’s window. It’s simple visual storytelling at its best. Of course, as we look into those other apartments, we see evil in the heart of man acted out…or do we?

Hitchcock set up the story using purely visual means in the opening sequence, minus any dialogue or narration. Throughout the whole sequence our right and left brains are working in tandem interpreting what we’re seeing, making sense of it without any narration to distract us. Our minds are fully engaged thereby getting us connected to the story.

Now, let’s see how another filmmaker might have written and filmed this opening sequence using dialogue. I found this next video by whoiseyevan on YouTube. It’s great. It’s title is “How I Ruined Hitchcock’s Rear Window in Just Under 2 Minutes.” Notice how the words take away from the visuals and engage our brains less on interpreting what we’re seeing and hearing.

For those involved in marketing higher education and others, the lesson of visual storytelling is not that we shouldn’t use dialogue, narration, etc. to tell stories. It’s about the dynamics at play with the visual language. The best storytellers in film and video know how to tell powerful and touching stories visually in tandem with words, acting, and all the elements found within the visual media.

Next up: Video, Part 3: Deconstructing the Montage

Previously: Video, Part 1: Setting the Bar Higher Than Viral

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