The Visual Story
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The Visual Story

Creating the Visual Structure of Film, TV, and Digital Media

Bruce Block

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  1. 340 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (mobile friendly)
  4. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub

The Visual Story

Creating the Visual Structure of Film, TV, and Digital Media

Bruce Block

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About This Book

This updated edition of a best-selling classic shows you how to structure your visuals as carefully as a writer structures a story or composers structure their music. The Visual Story teaches you how to design and control the structure of your production using the basic visual components of space, line, shape, tone, color, movement, and rhythm. You can use these components to effectively convey moods and emotions, create a visual style, and utilize the important relationship between the visual and the story structures.

Using over 700 color illustrations, author Bruce Block explains how understanding the connection between story and visual structures will guide you in the selection of camera angles, lenses, actor staging, composition, set design and locations, lighting, storyboard planning, camera coverage, and editing.

The Visual Story is an ideal blend of theory and practice. The concepts and examples in this new edition will benefit students learning cinematic production, as well as professional writers, directors, cinematographers, art directors, animators, game designers, and anyone working in visual media who wants a better understanding of visual structure.

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The Basic Visual Components

The Cast of Visual Characters

Everywhere we go, we’re confronted by pictures. We look at pictures in books, magazines, at museums, theatres, on television, computer screens, and personal devices. The pictures are different sizes, moving or still, in color or black and white—but they are all pictures.
Pictures usually communicate moods, emotions, or ideas to the viewer. We can call these pictures cinematic images. There are three ways that cinematic images communicate with an audience.
  1. Story: The viewer becomes involved in the picture because it tells a story. The fundamental building blocks of story are plot, conflict, and character development.
  2. Sound: The viewer becomes involved in the picture because of the sound. The fundamental building blocks of sound are dialogue, music, and sound effects.
  3. Visuals: The viewer becomes involved in the picture because of the visuals. What are the building blocks of the visuals? Scenery? Actors? Costumes? No. These answers are too limited. The fundamental building blocks of visuals are the basic visual components.

The Basic Visual Components

The seven basic visual components are space, line, shape, tone, color, movement, and rhythm.
These components are found in every moving or still picture we see. Actors, locations, scenery, costumes, and props are made of these visual components. A visual component communicates moods, emotions, and ideas, and, most importantly, creates the visual structure. This book discusses these basic visual components in relation to the cinematic story telling experience, although these components appear in any picture.


There are three ways to categorize visual space: First, the physical space in front of the camera; second, the space as it appears on a screen; and third, the size and shape of the screen itself.


Line is the result of tonal contrast. Line’s visual partner is shape because all shapes appear to be constructed from lines. Line is an important visual component because it also contributes to the control of space, movement, and rhythm.


Tone refers to the brightness of objects. Tone does not refer to the tone of a scene (sarcastic, excited, etc.), or audio tone (treble and bass). Tone, sometimes referred to as “value,” is an important factor in both black & white and color photography.


Color, a powerful visual component, is also the most misunderstood. This book will explain the complex component of color and make it simpler to use.


Movement is the visual component that first attracts the audience’s attention. There are three ways to create movement. Objects create movement, the camera creates movement, and the audience’s point-of-attention creates movement as they watch the screen.


We’re most familiar with rhythm we can hear, but there’s also rhythm we can see. Rhythm is found in stationary (non-moving) objects, moving objects, and editing.

Controlling the Visual Components

This book will explain visual structure and show you how to use it. The components of space, line, shape, tone, color, movement, and rhythm are your production’s visual cast members. You may be more familiar with the other cast called actors, but both casts are critical to creating great work. Once production begins, the visual component cast will appear on-camera with the actors in every shot. Both casts—the visual components and the actors—will communicate moods, emotions, and ideas to the audience. That’s why understanding and controlling the visual components is so important.
Whether it’s an actor, the story, the sound, or the visual components, audiences react emotionally to what they see and hear. Music can communicate moods or emotions. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho or Steven Spielberg’s Jaws demonstrate how well music generates fear in an audience. In Psycho it’s the screech of the violins, and in Jaws it’s the pounding notes of the bass that prompts the fear. In both cases, the filmmaker introduces the musical theme when the murderous character first appears and then, by repeating that theme, rekindles the audiences’ fear, tension, and horror.
The same communication can occur using a visual component. Certain visual components already have emotional characteristics associated with them, although most of these visual stereotypes are easily changed. “Red means danger” is a visual stereotype. In fact, any color can indicate danger or its opposite: safety. Although stereotypes effectively prove that visual components can communicate with an audience, the stereotype is not the only choice. Visual stereotypes can be derivative, dated, or inappropriate. Any visual component can communicate a wide range of emotions or ideas in new and interesting ways. The possibilities are only limited by the picture maker’s talent, imagination, and ability to control the components.
Can you decide not to control the visual components in your production? Yes, of course. Shooting in black & white eliminates color, but even a blank screen contains most of the components, so the screen is never empty. The picture maker who disregards the components is making an unfortunate mistake because the audience can’t ignore the visual components they see on screen. The components are always communicating moods, emotions, and ideas to the audience. Left uncontrolled, the visual components can inadvertently contradict the story telling, mislead the audience, or simply bore them.
Understanding the visual components opens the door to controlling the visual structure of your pictures. It’s the key to staging actors, choosing the lens and camera angle, location selection, art direction choices, and editorial decisions.
Remember, though, that any study, if blindly adhered to, can be misleading. It’s not the purpose of this book to leave you with a set of rigid textbook definitions. If visual structure were that predictable a computer algorithm could produce perfect pictures. Visual structure isn’t math. Fortunately, there are some concepts, guidelines, and even some rules that will help you solve the problems of producing great images. The key is understanding the visual components.
In this book each visual component will be explained and illustrated. Most importantly the process for assigning moods, emotions, ideas, and meanings to the components will be discussed. The purpose of this book is to enable you to control visual structure and use it to support the story you want to tell.


This book introduces some new terminology and ideas. Here are a few terms that need defining now:


The real world is the environment in which we live. It’s the three-dimensional place we inhabit every day.
The screen world refers to the two-dimensional screens where we watch pictures. It’s the high-tech picture world we create with cameras and computers, and the lowtech picture world we create with pencils and brushes. This includes movie screens, television and computer screens, screens on hand-held devices, screens inside headsets, the canvases hanging in museums, and the pages in books and magazines that display photographs and drawings. All of these two-dimensional surfaces are part of the screen world.


The picture plane is the two-dimensional surface where our pictures exist. The picture plane is usually surrounded by a “window.”
In an art museum, the picture plane’s window is the actual frame. In a movie theatre, curtains frame the two-dimensional picture plane. On a television, computer or hand-held device, the picture plane is framed by the plastic edges of the screen.

When we compose a shot using a camera’s viewfinder or use our hands, we loo...

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