Visual Storytelling - T. Benjamin Larsen's Blog

Can A Building Tell A Story?

Oslo's new Opera House

I'm not particularly knowledgeable about architecture. I can probably recognize a couple of style-periods but have no detailed knowledge of the craft. Like most people however, I know what I like. Oslo's new opera building is among the latter. The new seaside Opera-building was drawn by the firm Snøhetta and is an abstraction of a glacier. To me, the most stunning thing about the building is how it almost transforms what constitutes a building. The slanting roof accounts for the majority of the building-mass. Accessible to the public, it creates a landscape that works incredibly well both on its own merits as well as the glacier-feeling it is trying to achieve. The construction is made in such a way that at times only the white marble of the building and the sky is visible. It really does evoke a feeling similar to being on a glacier, you better bring your sunglasses.

A long time coming

And there's more. This is a building for the National Opera and Ballet and as such it has obviously been paid for by the government. The prelude to actually building the thing has not been without a few sour notes.

The debate to whether Norway needs a dedicated Opera has been on and off ever since 1905 when we regained full autonomy as a sovereign state. Also, spending huge amounts of money on a building dedicated towards what is perceived as high culture will always tick some people off. Personally I think making beautiful buildings for the public actually improves people's quality of life to some extent. (Although it is hard to design a spreadsheet to prove this).

Song of Norway

As Snøhetta are based in Norway they are of course well aware of the historical aspects of the project. This is what really got me thinking. Take a look at the following text:

«Yes, we love this country as it rises forth, rugged, weathered, above the sea...»
As some of you no doubt know, and even more might have guessed, this is the beginning of the Norwegian National Anthem. (Literal translation taken from Wikipedia). Now, it could be a mere coincident, but doesn't that description seem quite befitting of Snøhetta's National Opera building as well?


Great Coffee [logo] (?)

Why the Starbucks logo isn't really that great

This post came about after reading Garr Reynolds' excellent blog-post about Logos & identity. The Starbucks Logo and its many rip-offs is one of the things Garr dig into. Through the links in his post I also found my way to where Starbucks' logo is placed eight in the "All-Time Ranqued logos". As you've probably gathered from my sub-heading I don't think it deserves this honour.

-Faulty by design

One of the most important elements of a logo is that it is instantly recognizable. It should immediately separate itself from other companies' logos so that the customer can recognize it at a glance. The problem with the Starbucks Logo lays in the shape. Why the circular badge looks pleasant it also has the same shape as gazillions other logos:

Now, as long as you watch these logos displayed like this in full colour displayed you should have little problem separating them. Although at a distance you might already be forgiven for mixing the Skoda and Starbucks logos. Let's try in black and white:

As you can see the logos now appear even more similar. Flipping through a newspaper I doubt if any of these would evoke immediate recognition. The identical geometry becomes a problem. Just look at these silhouettes:

You might argue that none of these logo-owners would ever present their logo in a simple silhouette and you'd be right. But a strong silhouette improves the recognizability. Furthermore, Starbucks (or any of the others) surely can't expect to copyright a circle?! Other companies however have clear, distinct shapes that both stand out in a crowd and are hard to copy:

How close do you think anyone would come to these before becoming synonymous with copyright infringement? As mentioned earlier: a logo should be instantly recognizable. One of the easiest way to achieve this is to design a strong and exclusive silhouette.


Technology Schmecologny

-Tools in the hands of tools

I love technology. Not all technology of course, but great looking, seamlessly working gizmos and cleverly designed software are things that bring a smile to my face. As much as I love technology I am also depressed at some people's blind belief in the tools of the digital age. Technological advances and lower prices have put professional tools in the hands of anyone willing to part with the cash. In the 80's desktop publishing, advanced computer-typefaces and photocopiers drove a lot of smaller advertising agencies out of business. A lot of executives figured 'we can do it ourselves and save money!' No one would claim to be a carpenter simply because they bought a hammer and some nails. Yet this was essentially the logic governing their decision.

Picasso’s La Guernica

Today I doubt you'll find any serious company that make their own advertising material. (Short of them having a professional marketing department). As people got used to seeing material with fancy font-work it became apparent that smooth fonts and clipart alone does not make professional looking documents. While most people wouldn't know how to design a print-ad, most people do know a bad one when they see one. Over time, talent prevails. After all, most people reading this could probably afford to buy material better than that used to paint the Guernica. Most would probably not come close in their artistic efforts though. Even if they did have the time (and space!) on their hands.

If you need an illustration would you rather buy it from an accountant who just bought the latest version of Photoshop or from a proven artist using Microsoft Paint?

From YouTube/EclecticAsylumArt

As you can see from the above example great artists can make great artwork even with limited tools. The combination of great tools and great artists is the stuff dreams are made of. If you can only have one of these you should choose the artist - every time.


La Linea

-Heroes come in all shapes

When it comes to heroes childhood heroes I didn't know anything about, Italian cartoonist Osvaldo Cabandoli (Cava) comes close to the top of the list. His cartoon La Linea (the Line) was a huge favourite and remains so to this day. The title-character is a highly emotional man depicted as a line-drawing silhouette. His whole world exists solely on a 2D-plane made up from line-drawings and the cartoonist's hand is the only other frequently returning "character".

Walking the line

The humour comes from the interaction between the two and the sublime animation. This is a truly superb example of Visual Storytelling. The character's language comes from The Republic of Gibberishia meaning that people all over the world can enjoy the antics of this unlucky character. I also have to commend the excellent and highly humorous A cappella music used. As always, these things are better experienced first hand than read about. Enjoy!


Christmas Animation

Regular readers may have noticed that my bloging-frequency has taken a severe dip the last couple of weeks. One of the reasons for this is that I've started work on a Christmas Animation. (It's that time of year again*).

’’Nordpolen’’ is Norwegian for 'The North Pole'

The style I've chosen for this project is a simulated cut-out/handicraft look. This is more discernable when the images are in motion but hopefully these couple of images can help you get an idea of what I'm trying to achieve...

*It obviously isn't quite that time of year yet, but these things take time!


Meta Bloging

-The first 6 months

As my blog has just reached its 6 month of existence and is soon to reach 25.000 page-views and 6000 visitors (thanks to each and everyone of you!) I figured it was time for my first meta-blogpost. I think every bloger will sooner or later sink to this low, and for me it took just 6 months. Sorry.

Anyway, to avoid wasting your time completely I thought I'd inform you about the tools I use for my blog:

My very first blogpost

1. My MacPro. This is the physical corner-stone for more or less all my creative work. I type on this, I touch up images, animate, edit videos and make music on this thing.

2. RapidWeaver. RealMac's RapidWeaver. This, OSX only, software seems to be spreading like wildfire. Pitching itself somewhere between Apple's iWeb (part of iLife) and Adobe's Dreamweaver it is a solid Web Authoring Tool. While the blog-section is not 100% customizable (closer to 80%) the ease of use and clean coding-nature is definitely good enough for me.

3.) iPhoto. Another part of Apple's iLife this is a firm favourite of the household helping me to retain some sort of order in my steadily growing collection of digital photographs.

4.) Adobe Photoshop. Yup the great old man of advanced image-manipulation is another heavily used favourite. While it is to some extent approaching the state of bloat ware it also enables the users to do just about anything and deserves its place at the top of the food chain.

5.) TextEdit. Occasionally used to rid text-clippings of any unwanted formatting or font issues.

6.) SubEthaEdit. Yet another OSX exclusive. This is my general tool for occasions when I code my sites the old fashion way. When it comes to this blog it is mostly used to alter css-files.

7.) And last but not least: My Notepad and ballpoint-pen. Always with me, a lot of the stuff you'll read here is actually written on the tube (underground, metro, subway or whatever you like to call it).

The tools of the trade

Well, that's about it I think. Once again, my heartfelt thanks to everyone stopping by, and doubly so to those of you bothering to drop me a comment every now and then. Cheers!


Interactive Movies

-Why they don't work, and how they could

Interactive Movie : a hybrid of a movie and a video game is an art-form that never seemed to take off. They were created in a way where the movie stopped/paused at a certain point and the user's interaction would decide the continuation of the movie. One of the best known examples is the Laserdisc based arcade game Dragon's Lair. While Dragon's Lair was commercially successful, few would argue that it worked particularly well as a game or that its narrative was worthy of any awards. Thanks to the work of legendary animator Don Bluth and his team it looked brilliantly though; and for a while the novelty of the visual quality was enough to forget about all the shortcomings. [Un]fortunately, later attempts at repeating the success would demonstrate that the format was basically flawed.

-Flawed format

Possibly the best looking video game of all ages

Despite the fact that the technology used was crude compared to today's standards, I don't think the major problem was of a technical nature. Let me elaborate: When we watch a movie the filmmakers tell us a story. This is the basic premise of the narrative movie and from the spectator's point of view it is a passive medium. (Not taking into account the emotions a good movie can evoke). This is what we sign up for an it is in many ways an evolutionary step from the storyteller traditions of yore. When the audience have to "help" the hero or decide where the story should go it breaks the mould. We're basically experiencing the storyteller putting his hands up saying «I don't know, what do you think?». It simply doesn't work. We've trusted you to tell us a story, now tell us a freakin' story!

-A way for the viewer to participate

I think however that there is room for a different kind of Interactive Movie, one where the storyteller doesn't give up on the story. Greater minds than mine* may already have thought of this, but nevertheless my idea is as follows:

The Interactive Movie v 2.0 will start like any other movie, setting up the basic premisses, introduce the characters etc. At a certain point the story will diverge into two parallel actions. This is already a widely used storytelling tool in the world of movies, enabling switching between the different parts of the story. The difference is that it will now be up to the viewer to decide when to switch. At certain times the two strains of the story will again converge and most times they should come together to form a satisfying conclusion to the story.

The Arcade ‘Trailer’ in all its glory, courtesy of YouTube/Digital Leisure

I think this could work brilliantly. I don't know about you, but I'm an avid channel-switcher. When I watch television I've found that it is possible to follow two programs at once by switching back and forth between the two. In my proposed Interactive Movie you could have the hero struggling to break out of the villain's stronghold while his comrade-in-arms is on his way to bomb the building to smithereens. The viewer will have to switch back and forth to see if the hero will make it in time. In a way, the viewer becomes the editor.

Obviously there are caveats as some Storytelling Tools will be left useless. (The moviemakers can't cut away to another part of the story to increase tension). It does however allow the viewer to engage him- or herself in the story deciding which part to watch without breaking the story as a whole. The storyteller is still in charge of the story, but the viewer can decide which part of it to follow at any given time.

*I've been told they exist