How to improve visual storytelling daily (on the sly)
You know your craft, and how it relates to visual storytelling, whether you write, edit, shoot, or specialize. The process involves not only execution of your craft, but also planning the story visually with words and images.
Maybe you’re looking to improve your skills or branch out in a particular part of the process. Maybe, like me, you are just a believer in building daily habits. Here are some visual storytelling exercises to try daily for extended periods (not all at once). You can practice these even while fully engaged in other work.
Use cinematic language in everyday stories
Are you an Oscar-caliber documentary filmmaker but no good at swapping stories at parties? Silly as it may sound, the same visual storytelling approaches to language that work for cinema help make better conversation. You can try one or more of these tactics the next time you recount a personal story:
- Use action verbs. We follow action much better than description. Instead of “I was running late so I caught a ride-sharing service,” try “I jumped in a Lyft and raced downtown.” Like a song-lyricist, you’re not over-exaggerating if you describe how you felt. “My foot caught the curb and I flew in five directions at one time.”
- Have a protagonist. Your listeners need someone to connect with. This could be you, but if you’re merely narrating, create empathy with whomever the story is about. How? Describe how that person was affected. Fact: a bear passed near my campsite at Yosemite. Okay, and how did that make you feel? Ecstatic? Terrified? Even confused between the two feelings? Mere action is only the start, we want to know how you felt.
- Use the language of shots: actions and reactions. It sounds overly simplistic, but these shots comprise the building blocks of movies (and the entirety of spaghetti westerns). When you use them in a story, feelings naturally become part of that story.
- Just like when you’re making a movie, practice good visual storytelling and show, don’t tell. Sure, you’re using words, but don’t tell your audience how to feel. Give them action and dialog that creates a feeling. “I hauled the kids out of bed, late. We rushed to one of my favorite places, in the worst part of the city. Drug addicts and prostitutes roamed the streets like zombies. We stepped up the stairs into a church bursting to the seams with gospel music. The sounds of the choir filled my soul, and my eyes somehow became a little wet.”
- Pace your stories and leave ‘em wanting more. If you tend to rush, try very deliberately slowing down to get your listener’s full attention. Notice how the pace reflects what’s happening in the story.
If you want to go a little further, this short lesson applies to storyboarding and planning a movie. Consider what would make these same approaches work verbally. You may even find that these habits work their way into your screenplays and shot plans.
Practice visual storytelling with a camera
You’re reading this blog, so it’s somewhat likely you’re a professional when it comes to photographed images. You may already go on walks with the kind of camera that lets you set focus, image angle, depth of field, shutter speed, ISO and the other variables that are available to the camera you’ll use to shoot your movie.
To make this process fresh and challenging, make it a rule to shoot at least one photograph for a given time (day, week, month) that uses a technique you don’t normally do.
Here are a few examples to move you forward. Pick the one that seems furthest from your typical approach (or comfort zone).
Ask a stranger.
This article by David Powell is full of excellent ideas for a daily shooting practice. Number 3 on his 10 things list is to take pictures of people. He describes being shy about asking people if you can take their photo as “just something you have to get over.” The great thing about this is that there is a story built into the photo; how you and that person just met, what it was that you noticed.
“The approach I have taken that seems to work is being genuine and I simply ask ‘Do you mind if I take your photo?’. Often I will ask them to continue doing whatever they are doing and I take my shot.” And the extra genius in his approach is to carry business cards that he calls “photography cards” offering a high resolution photo via email for their troubles.
Emulate the greats.
Pick something from an image or film you love and try and recreate it. This post from Stephen Heleker illustrates specific approaches taken by master photographers. Quickly breaking down the examples:
- Cartier Bresson looks for “the decisive moment” in a scene
- Gregory Crewdson uses specials—lights that accentuate an area of a scene, like a movie
- George Tice composes contrasts that he emphasized in the darkroom (and you can emphasize in Lightroom)
- William Eggleston discovers exotic (and comical) details in everyday life
- Jeff Wall studies classic works of art and recreates them (like Peter Greenaway)
- Annie Liebowitz has a knack for understanding how to emphasize what her subjects, as characters, are all about
- Extra credit: choose your own photographer or filmmaker. Hitchcock’s Rule states that “the size of an object in the frame should equal its importance in the story at that moment.” Try that.
Shoot the image exactly as you want it composed, no cropping. Mise-en-scene is a term used in film school, it literally means “placed into the scene.” It’s how movies that aren’t documentry, Dogma 95 or completely unplanned are made. Choose a format (could be full frame or a pre-arranged crop) and compose the image for that.
These are just a few examples of challenges that you can find on popular photo sites dedicated to helping you stretch as a photographer. Pick the one that takes you out of your comfort zone and try it more than once, daily if you can.
Capture the highlight of the day in one second
And now we move from words and stills into videos. This tip is a little different. It’s not about refining or expanding your visual storytelling, but rather about thinking completely differently about how look for what to shoot. It’s even how you approach your day.
Cesar Kuriyama is one of us, except that he’s also given a famous TED talk. Director and 3D artist, compositior, and animator on a number of commercials and short films, he’s best known for “One Second Everyday.” It started with him capturing short videos each day and editing each day down to one second, then cutting it together into a six minute, five second clip to represent one year.
Why did he do this? “I found myself never having time for all the projects I wanted to work on on my own. I just said I have to do that, I have to take a year off, I need to take time to travel, and spend time with my family, and start my own creative ideas. As the days and weeks and months go by, time just seems to start blurring and blending into each other.”
The project became a downloadable app for your phone. I think of it every time I’m at an event or attraction and people around me have their phones up, shooting videos that most of them will never share or even look at again. “It’s also kind of a personal protest against the culture we have now where people just are at concerts with their cell phones out recording the whole concert, disturbing you and not even enjoying the show.”
Find the moment that triggers the memory
“I’ve decided that the best way for me to capture and keep a visual memory of my life and not be that person is just to record that one second that will allow me to trigger that memory.” Unlike with a photo, even a one second video snippet can somehow bring back details of surrounding events, even the entire day.
And perhaps most useful of all, it flexes the muscle of trying to notice and capture the moment that will be the highlight and stand for that day’s events. “Basically I’m recording one second of every day of my life, for the rest of my life. This has really invigorated me day-to-day when I wake up to try and do something interesting with my day.”
Build the habit muscle
These suggestions barely scratch the surface for daily visual storytelling habits. Khaled Housseini wrote The Kite Runner while practicing as a physician full time in California, day by day, from 4:30 a.m. until he saw patients starting at 8:45. However, the writing habit was his norm from childhood onward. Only medical school and residency, which he described as “a kind of slavery,” interrupted this habit.
If the visual storytelling habit isn’t already ingrained in your daily routine, try adding an app that lets you check off the daily habit and even gently reminds you to do it at a specific time of your choosing. I’ve looked at a few of these for the iPhone and like Habit List. I don’t like to set too many habits, but as I complete them, I can look at a calendar that shows my current streak, total completions and longest consecutive streak. I find it works best to set a habit as an intention if it is simple and you can complete it in a short period of time.