The Visual Storytelling Podcast
“Show, don’t tell.”
It’s every Visual Storyteller’s mantra.
…but it’s easier said than done.
In today’s lesson, you’ll learn four ways to write – with pictures!
…a practice that will help you solve existing Story problems, make a Story more powerful or get started on a new project!
Brian McDonald – Visual Storytelling consultant for Pixar, Disney, Sony and ILM – one of my closest friends and my most trusted mentor – joins me for:
The Power Of Pictures: 4 Ways To Make Your Stories More Emotional.
Click through to start the lesson…
Watch The Lesson:
[ download the mp3 ] [ download the pdf guide ]
The following is a transcript of the full lesson (with links to each resource mentioned).
Hello, my friends, welcome to the first episode of The Visual Storytelling Podcast!
I’m your host Chris Oatley.
I’m a Visual Development Artist and Illustrator currently working for Disney.
…and here at ChrisOatley.com, I help Artists create dream careers in the Entertainment Industry.
Before we begin, download the PDF Guide and the mp3 for this lesson.
…and if you like today’s lesson, please share a high star rating (and, if you have time, a positive review) on our iTunes page at: ChrisOatley.com/iTunes
Tip #1: Write The Silent Version First
Words often get in the way of a good Story.
I know that might sound heretical.
…but even if you’re a passionate worshipper of words, one cannot deny the common belief that a picture, as they say, is worth a thousand.
When you need to troubleshoot a Story problem or get a strong start on a new project, try applying the advice in this next clip.
[Brian] When you’re working in a visual medium like film or comics.
…particularly with film (but with any visual medium), there might be words, but the words are, essentially, secondary.
…and people don’t really understand that.
…and I’m actually kind of surprised, when it comes to film, how many people don’t understand that this is “Motion PICTURES.”
Early screenplays were called “photoplays.”
It’s about the picture.
…and when I talk with people and they talk about how “well” something is written, they always mean dialogue.
They never mean the Visual Storytelling – which is also a kind of writing.
They always mean dialogue.
…and they often mean the dialogue calls attention to itself in some way.
…and if it calls attention to itself they go: “Wow! Really well written!”
…but I’ll just see a bunch of talking and nothing will be reinforced visually and I’ll think it’s – probably – pretty poor writing.
I’m not going to mention any names but there’s a particular Screenwriter who always draws attention to his dialogue in a way that is – I think – distracting.
…but it makes everybody think: “What a great writer [this person] is!”
…but I find the work really distracting.
The characters are basically the same character…
[Chris] Well, that’s the irony of it, right?
We praise the dialogue but, even using dialogue as the metric for quality, it’s actually not great Storytelling because all of the characters are the same character!
…so, even if it was a radio play and we had nothing but sound effects and dialogue, it would not be good.
[Brian] Well, they used to say that in the radio days, when they wrote radio.
…because the way the radio scripts were written is: On the left side you’d have the characters’ names and on the right side you’d have the dialogue.
…and they would fold it in half so you can only see the dialogue.
…and they’d say: “If I can’t tell who’s talking by just reading the dialogue, then what you’re writing is crap.”
…but this particular writer (and a lot of writers now), you couldn’t do that with…
[Chris] Dialogue often breaks the spell.
[Brian] I think that’s true.
[Chris] Audiences want an immersive experience and yet we’re constantly reminding them: “Hey! Here I am behind the curtain pulling all the levers!”
[Brian] Yeah. I’ve said this before: Directors do it. Writers do it.
…where they’re very interested in calling attention to their work: “Look what I’m doing.”
There are Directors who say: “Look at me direct.”
…so it’s all “cool” shots.
Not about Storytelling.
…but about calling attention to: “Look at how cool this shot is.”
“Look at me direct. Look at me write. Look-at-me-look-at-me-look-at-me. Don’t look at the thing that I’m presenting to you…”
[Chris] …or yourself.
“…but look at me and look how good I am at what I am doing.”
It’s a sort of self-centered way to work and it doesn’t actually make good Stories or immerse yourself in any real way.
[Chris] Right. It just gets people talking about you.
[Brian] Right! I guess if that’s your goal…
[Chris] …mission accomplished, I suppose.
Mary Pickford – an old, silent movie star – one of the first movie stars – said something really interesting…
She said art usually goes from being complicated to being more simplified and being more refined.
…that it would have made more sense to go from talking movies to silent films.
[Chris] Yeah that’s amazing.
[Brian] Isn’t it?
[Chris] Something that has helped me tremendously has been: Write the “silent” version.
[Brian] Right. Yeah, when I, personally, write a screenplay or even a graphic novel, I’m trying to write a silent movie or a silent graphic novel.
When I have to write dialogue, it’s like: “Oh. This the limit of my ability to do this visually. I don’t know how to do this visually. Maybe in a year or two or ten, I’ll be better at it and I’ll know how to do this with pictures. …but right now I don’t.”
…so then I use dialogue.
[Chris] So dialogue is the last tool you reach for.
[Brian] It is.
[Chris] Why does the craft of Visual Storytelling – using pictures to tell stories – why is that such a richer experience for us?
[Brian] I think it’s probably more natural.
If you move from one country to another and you don’t speak the language, you have no idea what’s going on.
…and, quickly, you move into sign language.
…you move into visuals, right?
…because I think it’s much more natural.
Dogs will even indicate what they want in a kind of sign language:
“I want that thing right there!”
“I want out the door! *scratch scratch*”
…even though we’re not speaking the same verbal language.
…so I think that’s why.
I think it’s just more primal.
[Chris] Right. It’s deeper. It’s inherently more emotional…
[Brian] Yeah. And it’s gotta be older – in our evolution as a species – than language.
Tip #2: Create Space Between Your Words and Pictures
Though, for the Visual Storyteller, words are secondary, you can combine them with pictures to create dramatic effects that neither one is capable of on its own.
When words and pictures work together in complementary or contradictory relationships, the results can be hilarious, heartwarming and compelling.
Here’s an example from New York Times bestselling Author/ Illustrator Jon Klassen…
[Chris] I’ll start with a children’s book called I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen.
Many people listening to this podcast are big fans of Jon.
…and here’s why.
Here’s why we love him so much.
…because he really is brilliant.
He has this bear who establishes (on page one) that his hat is missing.
…and that he wants it back.
…and then he proceeds with this sequence of meeting other animals.
…and he does this through the whole Story but I’ll just focus on the first, major, emotional moment.
The bear goes to see a fox and he asks: “Have you seen my hat?”
…and the fox says no.
…and then he visits a frog and asks: “Have you seen my hat?”
…and the frog says no.
In both of these images – with the fox and the frog – the images are designed to be as uniform as possible.
…and the only thing that changes is the animal that the bear is talking to.
The fox and the frog look like a fox and a frog but the design is very…
They’re still very similar in the way that they’re designed.
The color palettes are very neutral.
Nothing about the bear changes.
Turn the page and you have the exact same composition, the bear in the exact same pose with the exact same facial expression. Everything’s in a very neutral palette…
…and then there’s a little rabbit (in the exact same position on the page as the fox and the frog were) and the rabbit is wearing this bright red, pointy hat.
It’s just a red triangle, basically.
…but it just jumps off the page.
…and, already, we’re laughing.
…and it’s so impactful – I would say that the dramatic impact of this Story moment is maximized – I think it’s fully optimized – because of the discipline of those first two shots.
[Brian] Sure, yeah. I think that’s true.
[Chris] So much of the comedy in this moment is what you’re – the audience – is what you’re doing.
[Chris] I mean – Jon Klassen – not to diminish his accomplishment at all. It’s amazing to be that simple and to be able to create a moment that emotionally impactful…
…but the fun and the punchline is happening with us.
[Brian] Of course it is.
With Visual Storytelling, you often connect dots. You’re putting A and B together and going: “Oh…”
[Chris] Right. We’re never told that this is the bear’s hat.
No one says this but we know.
So then, the bear asks the rabbit the same thing he asks the fox and the frog: “Have you seen my hat?”
…but now the rabbit has kind of a…
…almost a monologue.
…where he’s clearly overcompensating.
He’s clearly guilty.
…and so he goes on and on about how he hasn’t seen any hats at all.
…and: “Please stop asking.”
…and: “Of course, I would never steal a hat.”
He offers the word – the “stealing” part.
…and then the bear says ‘Ok. Thank you’ and moves on.
But now we know.
You’ll have to read the book to get the rest of the Story.
…and I highly recommend it.
But I just think that’s an amazing example because both things – the image and the words – work better.
[Brian] Yeah. The dialogue says: “I didn’t steal your hat. I don’t know anything about a hat. I’ve never seen a hat.”
…but the picture tells us that’s not true.
There’s space for the audience to participate.
We’re participating in this Story because we’re like: “But that’s the hat! He’s got your hat!”
So we’re participating.
If you do all the work, the audience can’t participate.
Tip #3: Don’t Forget To Use The Costumes, Props and Sets
Whether digital or handwritten, many Visual Storytellers begin their work in a text-based format.
…and, sometimes, words are the only thing a Storyteller has to work with.
…so it makes sense that our Stories often get too wordy.
When you get stuck in the process or have trouble getting started, look for inspiration in the physical – that is to say: “visual” – elements that exist within the world of your Story.
…like the costumes, props and sets.
While listening to this example from an obscure, 1985 western, try to keep track of all the ways legendary screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan used costumes, props and sets to create a funny, suspenseful (and almost entirely visual) sequence…
[Chris] I’ve never seen Silverado.
[Brian] When it came out, I loved it because it was written by Lawrence Kasdan.
…and Lawrence Kasdan had written Raiders Of The Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back so whatever that guy was doing, I was following it.
I read every interview with him and then, later, I realized it didn’t have a very strong first act and so I think that’s why it hasn’t really stood the test of time.
It’s got too many focuses and it doesn’t really know what it’s about and it’s not simple enough.
…but I can still tell it’s the guy who wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders Of The Lost Ark because there’s stuff in there that is as good as in those two movies.
This is a western.
Kevin Kline plays a guy who’s been robbed of all his stuff.
…so he’s in those red long johns that they used to wear and that’s all he has – these long johns.
A guy finds him in the desert and helps him and takes him to a town.
…and the guy says: ‘I’m gonna go take care of something. Go buy some clothes.’
…and he gives him a coin to buy some clothes.
So he’s all by himself. He’s in his underwear and somebody responds: ‘Oh my god!’
…because otherwise we don’t know that wearing those red long johns is like walking around naked in this world. So we need that cue.
…and then you see him spot somebody.
…and he has described the people who robbed him, so…
So you see him spot somebody.
He quickly moves his hand like he has a gun. He quickly slaps his thigh and holds it like he has a gun: “Oh. Dammit. I don’t have a gun!”
[Brian] It’s really nicely done.
So you go: “Okay, so this guy’s used to having a gun.”
So you know that about him.
So then he runs into a gun shop.
…and he picks up a gun and does all these fancy gun tricks.
…and he’s looking out the window – making sure that guy is still there.
…and he does all these gun tricks and you know: “Oh my god. He’s good with a gun.”
…and so he plops the coin on the counter and says: “I’ll take this one.”
…to the clerk.
The clerk has a pair of scissors which he puts in Kevin Kline’s chest and says: “No. This one is twenty dollars.”
So he can’t take that gun.
…and he keeps looking out the window like: “Oh my god, he’s going to get away!”
He wants to get out there with a gun so he says: “What can I get for this?”
…for the coin.
And what the clerk hands him is a rusty, old gun.
He hands him a rusty, old gun!
…and Kevin Kline’s looking at it and – as he turns it to the side – the barrel falls out in his hand.
…and, so, that’s the gun he buys!
He buys the gun and he’s loading it with bullets and he’s racing outside to try to get the guy who robbed him.
…and the guy sees him.
Kevin Kline’s still trying to load his gun and the guy shoots at Kevin Kline.
…and you see a hole underneath his crotch, in his red underwear.
…but he’s still calm and he’s still loading the gun.
…and then he loads it: BAM!
…shoots the guy dead in one shot.
[Brian] So you know he’s really good at what he does.
You know he’s a really good gunfighter.
You know that and nobody said a word.
Tip #4: Make Your Theme Visual In Every Way Possible
Storytelling evolved to become the most effective way of communicating information about how to survive and/ or thrive in life.
A good Storyteller makes it artful, elegant, and emotionally powerful.
But how do we design Stories that are both artful and focused?
How do we unify form and function?
Theme is the lesson that your Story communicates about how to survive and/ or thrive in life.
Theme is a filter. Theme is focus. Theme is fractal.
Theme is both form and function.
Here’s what I mean…
[Chris] How would you state the Theme of The Wizard Of Oz?
[Brian] I always word it: “You may already have what you’re looking for.”
…because it’s not always true, right?
…but you may already have what you’re looking for and so maybe you don’t need to go very far to find it.
[Chris] That’s good. That’s very succinct.
[Brian] Yeah, well, I’ve thought about it a lot.
[Chris] Dorothy – our protagonist – learns this lesson throughout the Story.
The Scarecrow, The Tin Man and The Cowardly Lion are also all manifestations of the Theme.
Scarecrow is looking for a brain.
We see throughout the Story that he already has a brain.
Tin Man is looking for a heart.
We see throughout the Story that he already has a heart.
The Lion already has courage…
[Brian] They demonstrate it throughout the whole piece.
…again, it’s visuals.
They demonstrate over and over again.
No matter what they say.
[Chris] No matter what they say. Right.
So you could do this example with Scarecrow or The Lion but Tin Man – I think – is the best example of the Theme made visual…
When we first meet the Tin Man he is rusted and stuck.
He can’t move. He can’t talk.
Dorothy and Scarecrow are coming down the yellow brick road they discover The Tin Man.
He’s able to sort of mumble.
…and they’re able to make out the words: “Oil can.”
…and so they grab the oil can and start greasing the joints.
He’s freed up piece by piece and he’s able to talk and move.
He says: “Go on. Bang on my chest.”
…and then Dorothy bangs on his chest and we hear the echoing sound inside his chest.
Then, later, he says: “The guy who built me forgot to put a heart in there.”
So we establish this idea that he doesn’t have a heart.
Tin Man has his song and dance.
…and then: “We’re going to go to the Wizard. He’s going to give you a heart.”
…and then we go to The Lion.
…and then there’s an encounter with The Witch.
…and then we see The Witch in her tower. She’s got a looking glass. She’s spying on the characters and she decides that she’s going to create the poison poppy field outside of The Emerald City.
…and when the characters run through, the flowers are going to poison them.
The characters arrive at the poppy field and they’re all excited: ‘Here’s The Emerald City!’
…out on the horizon – and they start running toward it.
…and Dorothy is the first to succumb to the poison poppies.
She starts getting lightheaded and needs to take a minute to rest.
…and now the characters are starting to get a little nervous. …starting to get agitated.
Dorothy passes out.
…falls down into the flowers.
Lion goes down.
…and then Scarecrow looks up at Tin Man and Tin Man is crying.
The Scarecrow says to him: “Don’t cry or you’ll rust.”
…so Tin Man’s first response – the picture we see…
…his first response to Dorothy and Lion – his friends – being in danger…
…is to cry.
…so we’re seeing empathy.
We’re seeing empathy displayed. We’re seeing how sensitive he is and that he does, in fact, have a heart.
…and then we see an image of Glinda superimposed and she creates this snow which, apparently, subdues the effects of the poppies.
So all this snow comes down and Dorothy wakes up.
…and Scarecrow is excited: “Oh, Dorothy! You’re waking up!”
…and he pats her on the shoulder.
The Lion is yawning.
It’s just so great.
Dorothy looks over and sees…
…and the camera pans to reveal The Tin Man just like he was in the first shot – except he’s not holding the axe up – but it’s a very similar pose.
So, now, we’ve charged this with emotion. We’ve charged this actual image of him frozen there – with emotion.
…and that image is not just proving that he does, in fact, have a heart.
…but it, also, is this icon of the Story.
[Brian] Yeah, it’s amazing.
Yeah. The movie’s full of that.
I don’t know why people don’t talk about it more.
[Chris] About The Wizard Of Oz?
[Brian] No. Nobody talks about this.
Nobody talks about the power of visuals.
Often when you talk to people about visuals, they talk about how beautiful they are.
People say this about cinematography a lot: “It was beautiful!”
…and I’m like: “Was it appropriate?”
…should it be beautiful?
Were they the shots that the Story needed?
Was it the lighting that the Story needed?
…or was it just beautiful?
They go: “I just watch this for the cinematography.”
…or: “I just watch this for the [this or that].”
…and I’m like: “Oh, that’s interesting. Why didn’t they put out a movie that’s just cinematography?”
“Oh, well, that would be boring? Oh, so they did try to make a Story. Well, they failed at that part.”
It’s like: “Well, if they just put out a movie with just fashion, let’s see how many people go.”
[Chris] Well, yeah. They already have that. It’s a fashion show.
[Brian] Right! Exactly!
[Chris] That’s why we do fashion shows.
…because we just want to go and experience the spectacle.
…and that’s fine.
I think that’s the other thing, too. …is that’s fine.
Let’s just – if we’re going to make a movie – let’s make a movie.
[Brian] Right. Or if you’re going to do a graphic novel, do that.
…but whatever it is, do that thing and honor its strengths.
[Chris] Yeah, right.
[Brian] It has certain strengths and you should honor those strengths.
…and honoring weaknesses is also a way to honor strengths.
…but you have to do that or you’re not using your medium to the best of its…
Um… You know what I’m saying?
[Chris] Maximizing the potential of the medium.
[Brian] There you go. Thank you. Thanks for using words I couldn’t find.
[Chris] Well, I owed you one.
[Brian] You did. You did.
Yeah, I don’t know how to evaluate anything if it’s not in service of the Story.
[Chris] Oh yeah. Well, sure. Then, otherwise, what is your measure?
Check out Brian’s books on Visual Storytelling and also his new graphic novel from First Second Publishing. It’s called “Old Souls” and it’s awesome.
…and if you haven’t done so yet, download the PDF Guide and the mp3 for this lesson!
…and if you find this podcast helpful or inspiring, please share a high star rating (and, if you have time, a positive review) on our iTunes page at: ChrisOatley.com/iTunes
If you have a Story that you know you have to tell, but you’re struggling with the process, please consider joining our Visual Storytelling course at ChrisOatley.com/TellMyStory
Until next time, my friends, remember: In a visual medium, words are secondary.
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