February 22, 2015

visual storytelling

Film is a brilliant combination of written word, music, sound and pictures, so this week we’re looking at the ways we can tell a story visually, rather than always relying on dialogue to explain things.


Too often, we rely on a narrator to tell the story, or have characters awkwardly explain things to each other so the audience can understand. However it’s true that films do usually need dialogue, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with using a narrator. The key is to be on the look out for better ways to tell the story, and this often means using visuals.



It’s one thing for a character to say exactly how they are feeling, but if can get them to show how they’re feeling then that frees up the dialog for other uses. How often to we mean exactly what we say?


If our film is just a sequence of dialog scenes, why not make a radio show? Don’t be lazy and get your characters to explain the plot, find ways to make it a visual experience. One of the simplest forms of this is when you want to set up the story and show something as scary.  In ‘Jaws’, Steven Spielberg sets up the premise of the film very effectively in the first scene. We see a regular bunch of college kids at a beach, and then when one of them goes for a swim in the ocean, we see an eerie shot from below the water – from a shark’s perspective.  We don’t see the shark, but we certainly see what it’s capable of, which means that whenever a shark is mentioned later on in the film, the memory of the brutal shark in fresh in our minds.


There are a whole plethora of techniques and principles involved with framing and lighting a shot that can change the atmosphere of a scene, highlight certain parts of the frame and present characters in a different way. Check out the videos below for some ideas on the effects that different camera and lighting techniques can have in films.


One of the least talked about parts of filmmaking, the set design costume and locations play a huge role in the visuals of a film. It’s all about fully realising the world that this character lives in. From the modern interior of a millionaire’s house to the dark, musty bars that a film noir anti hero resides, we can show a lot by the clothes they wear and the places they go.


A necklace from her late husband. A watch passed down through the generations. A child’s teddy bear. A red rose.  All of these things can be placed in films as a way to hint at the overall themes of a film, while revealing more about a character. The really interesting part is seeing what happens to these little trinkets or symbols as the character develops. In films, characters often have little symbolic visual ceremonies, like burning a letter, throwing a phone off a cliff.   In Titanic, Rose drops the necklace in the ocean. In Interstellar, the watch turns out to be a lot more than a time keeping device.  When you attach meaning to an object, we can then communicate with the audience on a much deeper level, letting them figure things out rather than handing it to them on a platter.

cinematography storytelling


PART 1: Looking at the deeper meaning behind cinematography choices, starting with framing and composition.



lighting cinematiographyblog


PART 2: Going through lots of lighting setups, focusing on the way that we can use lighting to tell a story.



lenses blog


PART 3: How can we use lenses creatively? This week we’re looking at depth of field, focal length, field of view and aesthetics.


This is next video is a brilliant example of visual storytelling. Through the placement of the characters in the scene, it provides a lot of tension, while summarising all of the character’s situations and relationships.  The main bit i’m talking about starts around 2 minutes in, but I recommend watching the whole thing.



A photo posted by Simon Cade (@cadevisuals) on

Simon Cade

Filmmaker, and host of DSLRguide. Since I was making my first film age 11, I have always been fascinated by the way films are produced, and the effect it can have on the audience.

  • Paul Robertson

    Another great blog and associated film. I liked The double indemnity clip. Insurance based crime drama – I love old 50s films.

  • Wonderful analysis. I must say, you know how to make tutorials. Cheers my friend.

  • Valeria Ardiyants

    Randomly found your YouTube channel today and instantly got hooked. So, I’m not exactly a filmmaker but, as a photographer, I still find a lot of the principles transferrable. I really liked the part of this video that focuses on the power of storytelling in a single frame. That’s the key difference between photographers and filmmakers: you have more than one frame to get your point across. Anyway, I’m still going through all your videos but (if you haven’t already done it) I would love to see a video/blog covering single-frame storytelling with a bit more depth. Maybe showing some instances in film where that was done. Not trying to tell you how to run your blog. Just think it would be a cool idea. :)