Visual Storytelling - T. Benjamin Larsen's Blog

Jer's Novel Writer

An application for creative writers

Based on my output in this blog so far it should come as no surprise that I enjoy writing. The stuff I post here is for the most part written directly in RapidWeaver, the application I use to maintain this site. (Most of the text actually origins from the notebook I carry with me on the tube).

For larger projects, not intended for web, I find that more specialize tools are required. One of my current projects is a children's novel and I have used this project to test the shareware application Jer's Novel Writer (JNW for short).

From writer to writer

JNW is made exclusively for OSX (sorry Windows- and Linux users). It is created by Jerry Seeger - himself a creative writer and this really shines through. For one thing, this is not your Swiss Army knife Word Processor. It does not bother with fancy layout options nor allow you to import a single graphic element.

Normal windowed-mode

You may however create chapters, have a database of characters, places (or anything else you might fancy) and not the least, put notes in the margins. The killer feature for me though is the Full Screen Mode. No icons. No menus. Just a clean white screen to write your heart out on.

The all-conquering Full Screen mode

JNW will of course let you export your text to other formats, useful when you want to perform more complex layout tasks. It also has a nifty print function that allows you to define different print templates each with their individual fonts, font-sizes, line breaks et cetera. All this is done without altering your actual document.

I guess it is quite apparent by now that I like JSW a lot. I am generally a fan of lightweight specialized apps and this is close to Nirvana in that respect. At $30 this is a steal. If you're still not convinced you are of course allowed to download a free trial version that's not limited in any way save from a nagging function.

So ten* thumbs up from this blogger. Jer's Novel Writer truly is an excellent piece of software, perfectly balancing the feature-set and user-friendlyness.

*I'm all thumbs


Alien Aztecs, the curse of knowledge and the mother of all design-assignments

The mission

Imagine being given the task of explaining the origins of an object to an unknown recipient. A recipient that doesn't understand your language, has no knowledge of your alphabet and not even a basic understanding of the symbols we all consider universal.

This might sound absurd but it was exactly the assignment Dr. Carl Sagan and Dr. Frank Drake set off to accomplish when starting design on what was to be known as the Pioneer Plaque.

To infinity and beyond


NASA's Pioneer program consisted of space probes being sent out to investigate celestial bodies. The Pioneer 10 and 11 would actually travel to the end of our solar-system and continue into deep space. Journalist Eric Burgess was the first to present the idea that the satellites should contain some information about their origin in case of alien interception.

What a design challenge! How on earth (pun intended) can you possibly imagine what it would be like for an alien to witness imagery from a totally unfamiliar world? Will they even have the ability to understand artistic renditions? It might seem obvious to us but the majority of beings on our own planet cannot. They did make a few assumptions that limited the challenge slightly. As the chance of the satellite ever coming in contact with an alien civilization was slim at best, they figured that the best chance would be for it to be picked up by an alien space-craft. This would mean the collectors weren't exactly cave-men.

And when watching the imagery it certainly seems decodable. While I don't instinctively catch the deeper scientific bits. I recognize the planets and the two human figures. So credit to Drs. Sagan and Drake and to Sagan's wife at the time - Linda Salzman Sagan who actually prepared the finished artwork.

The curse of knowledge

However: It is hard for us, as it was for the plaque's creators, to escape the curse of knowledge. We all know about the stuff the pictures are describing. The human figures are nearly instinctively obvious to us as we're trained to recognize other humans from the moment we open our eyes the first time. For otherworldly beings however all this could be potentially confusing. Just think back through our own history when [legend has it] that the Aztecs mistook the Spanish conquestador Cortes for a good when he unmounted his horse. We all view our world based on knowledge, culture, religion and other filters society have bestowed upon us. The earth used to be flat remember?

So to try to round this up the plaque-creators had a seemingly impossible task and they probably knew it. They gave it their best shot however and whether they succeeded or not we'll probably never know.

The point you should keep in mind is this: Your audience, whether you're making a speech, lecture or film, might be Alien Aztecs. They might be completely oblivious to what you trying to convey. Therefore you must try to put yourself in your audience's shoes. Otherwise you just might end up as an Aztec deity on The Forbidden Planet...


Will Eisner

Childhood Heroes

Comic-books are without a doubt one of the most successful forms of visual storytelling. Yet it's a subject I haven't tackled in this blog so far, save from a couple of self-made attempts used as illustrations.

I grew up on comics and for a large part of my adolescence the only thing I dreamt of was to become a comic-creator. My biggest idols of that period was probably the French/Belgian masters Franquin, Uderzo & Goscinny. This first comic-oriented blog post is however dedicated to another one of my heroes: Will Eisner.

The Spirit

Eisner's most well known character is probably The Spirit. A noir-styled, masked crime-fighter. The stories often border on the absurd and it is often quite hard to predict just where Mr. Eisner is going until you actually finish the last page or the last panel.

Opening page from a Spirit-story. Copyright © Will Eisner.

As you can see from the image above, the drawings are of a slightly caricatured nature and the page layout is extremely dynamic. Yet the composition always seems to lead your eyes in the right direction avoiding the distractions you find in some other comics. In lack of a better word I'd call the look "modern" which in this context is meant as a compliment, especially since the original Spirit stories were all made between 1940 and 1952(!)

Beyond the Bedroom

Eisner is generally considered to be one of the comic-creators who really managed to elevate the art of comics beyond the bedroom of teenage boys. His achievements are probably best witnessed in his graphic-novel A Contract With God (available at Amazon). A piece of work that demonstrates just how potent comics can be when tackling more serious material than cape-wearing guys in leotards beating up bad guys.

Of course Eisner himself was well aware of the possibilities that existed in the art form and wrote two books on the subject. I highly recommend both Comics & Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative to those of you with a larger interest in the subject.

His Spirit Lives On

Sadly Will Eisner passed away in 2005 so we won't see any new work from the master's hands. His legacy lives on however and through researching this blog I found that a film about The Spirit is scheduled for release next year. What makes this project really interesting is that the director/screenwriter of the film is none other than Frank Miller(!)

Link: Official Will Eisner site.


Ramblings #2 - Why good coffee is good and great coffee is crap

Coffe Time

As my former Superanomalies-clip was an outstanding success. (At least in the scope of this blog). I figured it was about time for another one.

Monkey business?

This one is all about coffee and is not recommended for the squeamish coffee-drinker. (Don't tell me you weren't warned). A higher quality Quicktime-file is available here. Any positive sensible feedback is welcome.


"The Big Snit"

For some strange reason most of my posts so far have been either about poorly used visuals or about how the message might be better without visuals. Interesting as this may be, I also think I've been overly cautious. It is after all much easier to point out flaws than put your neck out and tell the world what you really like.

An example of Richard Condie's style as well as Sharon Condie's background-work

So, one out-sticking neck coming up. Okay, I'm not taking an enormous risk recommending an Academy Award Nominated animation. I do however find Richard Condie's "The Big Snit" from 1985 to be an absolute superb piece of visual storytelling. To some of you raving about this film is probably like raving about water being wet. I still find that it is nowhere near having the position it deserves among the general public though. This is not the Disney-, WB- or MGM-cartoon that's part of our common cultural fabric.

So why do I find this piece so brilliant? Well, as a piece of visual storytelling it is brilliant because the visuals are the main-source of the quirky humour it exudes. Normally a story about a couple experiencing domestic problems under the threat of nuclear holocaust is not your regular laugh-riot. Yet it clearly works here. Admittedly the humour is of the dark variation but thanks to the friendly style of the animation you're left with a positive feeling despite that ending. So, as I've already spent way too man words describing something that is better experienced I suggest you head over to the National Film Board of Canada and see for yourself.


Democratization of media, part deux

After finishing the "Uncle George and I"-piece I came across this somewhat related blog-post over at Agile Filmmaking. It's a speech by J. J. Abrams of Lost, Alias and Mission: Impossible III fame and it touches so many of the topics I've blogged about so far that I would be crazy not to present it here.

Mr. Abrams is something of a Hollywood wunderkind and I find it incredibly generous of him to share his thoughts with the world for free.

The message

The majority of the speech, or at least the most interesting part in my mind, is about how his grandfather helped him get the tools necessary to fulfill his creative ambitions. He goes on and points to the fact that today pro-tools are readily available for just about anyone. "Go make your movie, there's nothing stopping you!" he says. A statement that might seem oversimplified but for the most part it rings true as long as you are willing to put some effort into it.*

One of several highly interesting speeches to be found at TED

The delivery

I've never seen a public appearance by Abrams. I knew about him from his film- and television-work but knew little about what to expect. Being a truly talented visual storyteller I expected him to make a presentation with a lot of visual flare. He didn't. For the most part he simply presented his message by sharing personal experiences with the audience. He used a few physical props but only used the gigantic screen behind him for a few film-clips. When running the clips he simply stepped back and let them work their charms without interuptions.

I found this very interesting and highly effective. The visuals and his oral presentation never had to compete for the audience's attention. Now this is certainly not the only way to do a presentation and on the surface it might even sound boring. If you watch the clip you'll find that it is anything but though. Abrams heartfelt enthusiasm carries through even on a small flash-clip on my computer-screen.

None of this is exactly rocket-science as any communication-expert worth his money will tell you that enthusiasm is contagious. It does show though that with the right delivery you don't need fancy visuals. This might seem an odd statement to make on a blog about visual storytelling but the visuals should always be there to strengthen the core-message not because they look "cool".

*As long as you're not struck with poverty.


The meaning of life

The mother of all blogposts

I'm just back from a week's holiday in Spain which is a bit silly as I'm right in the middle of a 20-hour Portuguese-course. Anyway, as I was enjoying some time off from work and the chores of daily life under the Andalusian sun my mind found time to ponder that question: "What is the meaning of life?"

What's not to like?

I consider myself the kind of guy who "work to live" rather than "live to work". Despite this I feel best about myself when I actually do something creative. About now you might be asking "where the heck is this post going?" but bear with me I'm almost there. The thing is that while I find I enjoy the "good life" - relaxing, eating and drinking well under the sun, I quickly start to feel guilty as I could be using my valuable time for something more profound.

Not alone

I'm certain I'm not alone in this feeling but I'm equally certain that this feeling is far from universal. I know several people that want nothing more from life than the "buena vida" leaving the creative endeavours to the next gal or guy. This is not in any way meant to be derogative to those who have the ability to simply enjoy the comforts in life. It could well be that my "problem" is due to some kind of psychological miss-adjustment. Or it could be due to the fact that my day-job doesn't let me pursue my creative passions.

Most of all though it is probably just evidence that I've had way too much time to let my mind wander during my Spanish holiday...


Uncle George and I

I remember reading that George Lucas wouldn't start work on the Star Wars prequels before he felt the technology was ready to serve his vision. I am, in case you were wondering, not a legendary writer/producer/director with a huge foot-print on our popular culture. I do however have an experience not unlike the bearded one's: Technology becomes cheaper over time and now even average-Joe's like me can afford tools that used to be the exclusive domain of the film-studios. This means that today "anyone" can produce films of a professional quality. Luckily, having the technology is not enough. Talent is still a necessity but at least the stinking-rich-but-talently-challenged will have a harder time succeeding. And there are a other things to be happy about: Thanks to the web new channels makes it easier to reach an audience.

George Lucas is not considered a rich dilettante by this blogger

So this should mean everything is in place for a new quality=success regime, right? Unfortunately, dilettantes with deep pockets still have an advantage: Despite sites like YouTube making it possible for anyone to share their work with the world "anyone" might find it hard to get noticed. It is still possible to get more attention simply by shouting louder (spending more money). All is not lost however, but it takes your help!

Let people know! If you find something you really like, share it with your friends. If you find a small clip you like, an article, a piece of music send an email to people you think might enjoy your find. Be honest though, don't go head over heels to share every mediocrity you come across, this will just turn people off after a while. However if you are truly moved/inspired/cracked up by something you really shouldn't keep it to yourself. If we all pass it on perhaps we can reach a state where the web truly becomes a stage full of interesting niches.

We'll probably never get completely rid of the moron-with-money but at least we can make him run for his...

Before anyone ask: no George Lucas is not my uncle!