Visual Storytelling - T. Benjamin Larsen's Blog


Ouch! Half-a-month since my last post! Well, time flies when you’re having fun time flies. Things have simply been too hectic outside the blogosphere lately but hopefully things will improve from now on. One of the things I did get round to was to catch Andrew Stanton’s Wall-E in the local theatre. Being a huge animation (and Pixar) -fan I had been looking forward to this film ever since it was announced. The panegyric reviews it received upon its stateside release further fueled my excitement. Thankfully the film was well worth the wait.

Look - No Words!

I figure most of the people on the planet have an idea about the plot already so I want reiterate this in any detail. The film centers on the relationship between the two robots Wall-E and Eve. Perhaps more interestingly, it also includes some fairly serious social commentary.

The plot itself doesn’t necessarily redefine the art-form. It is however well structured and tells a concise story with one amazing constraint: For the most part the film is told without any dialogue what so ever. The two main characters don’t speak at all (apart from a few robotic renditions of their names). This is one of my favorite aspects of the movie and a truly brave decision of the filmmakers. It serves as a reminder that storytelling doesn’t necessarily require loads of words to work. (Unlike this blog-post).

Taking its time

Another surprise was the film’s willingness to slow down and «smell the flowers». On several occasions Stanton slows the action down and lets the audience drink from the fountain of amazing visuals. Normally I would be critical of an approach where the progress of the story is sacrificed for the looks. Yet, in the context of this film it works beautifully. Wall-E’s character justifies it. He is in essence a child and we get to share his awe of the wonders of space and futuristic technology.

But the willingness to slow down isn’t used exclusively to show off extra-terestrial visuals. No, the earthbound opening is a particularly interesting part in this respect. Here we are presented with a dystopian future-earth deprived of (almost) all life. If you think this sounds dark for a family-film you’re right. The tone of the film is one of dark melancholy and while it betrays this feeling occasionally the feel of the piece is certainly not the un-compromised positivity you might expect from Disney/Pixar. This might sound like a turn-off to some of you but the film is all the better for it.

Wall-E is simply put a masterpiece. It challenges the genre and treats the subject matter in a way that’s quite uncommon in contemporary Hollywood. In many ways it seems to borrow storytelling elements from asian animation (Hayao Miyazaki’s Totoro springs to mind).

If you have any interest in films, storytelling or animation go and see it.


André Franquin

One of my greatest childhood heroes was the Belgian comic-book-artist André Franquin. Doing the research for this piece I found that he is mostly unknown in the English speaking world. I feel sorry for all of you and find it almost unbelievable that no major publisher have had the good sense to publish his work in the English-speaking world. Okay, rant over, let’s get back to the great man himself:

Le journal de Spirou

André Franquin was born in Etterbeek, Belgium in 1924. According to the man himself he was always drawing and while he only got about a year of actual drawing lessons before these were cut short due to the war in Europe. His talent was obvious however and eventually he wound up working for the Belgian magazine Spirou, a comic magazine that was the original home of several European comics (perhaps most notably Peyo’s The Smurfs). Spirou was the name of the Magazine’s title character a red-haired bellboy. The character, as well as his best friend Fantasio and pet-squirrel Spip was invented by Robert Velter.

Champignac and The Marsupilami

When Franquin joined the magazine the series was being handled by Jijé but despite his well proven talent his efforts with the series do come across as a poor man’s version of Hergé’s Tintin. Jijé himself grew tired of Spirou and Franquin was called upon to continue the series, in the middle of a story no less - without a script to work from!

The Marsupilami

The young Franquin managed admirably and it wouldn’t take long before he more or less redefined the series. In a manner similar to Carl Barks’ work with Duckburg, he really defined a world and expanded character rooster that has remained with the series ever since. His most eye-catching character was definitely The Marsupilami, a fantasy animal from the imaginary south-american country Palombia. More important to the evolvement of the series was the invention of The Village Champignac. This quintessential french village would be the starting point of many an adventure and the home to many of Franquin’s new characters, most importantly The Count of Champignac. The Count, or Pacôme Hégésippe Adélard Ladislas de Champignac (yes I did look it up) fast becomes a close friend of Spirou & Fantasio. In addition to his noble lineage he is also an eccentric scientist and as we all know, eccentric scientists = high adventure.

Gaston Lagaffe

Eventually Franquin, like Jijé before him, grew tired of Spirou and passed it on to a younger artist (Fournier). While Fournier and later Tome & Janry kept the series well alive, it never reached the same constant brilliance as it had done during Franquin’s reign. Franquin himself continued to draw and write, concentrating on his own characters. Fantasio’s lazy, clumsy but equally kind and inventive subordinate Gaston Lagaffe seemed to receive the maximum attention. Unlike Spirou and Fantasio, Gaston was way too lazy to ever embark on any expeditions or fantastic journeys, perhaps a result of Franquin himself growing older. In 1997, at the age of 73, André Franquin passed away.


Gigantic Storytelling

The Sultan’s Elephant

Wow! Three letters, one syllable and the only word I can think of when watching the french marionette/street-theatre group Royal de Luxe performing The Sultan's Elephant. I don’t think there’s much to say really. This one of the most formidable pieces of visual storytelling I’ve ever seen and that’s from watching it on a small web-clip. Enjoy!


Based On The Graphic Novel

Films and comics (by any name) are two of the strongest and best known types of visual storytelling. They are also related in many ways and inspiration between the two are many and seem to go both ways. Some of the most successful films ever owe their existence to the comics they are based on. The apparent similarity between the storyboards used by filmmakers and the panels of a comic-book can mislead though. These are two distinct art forms with their own strengths and weaknesses and any story told has to be done so in a manner befitting its chosen medium. Finding inspiration in the original media is fine, carbon copying it is not. Obvious as this may seem it is something that several filmmakers have sinned against.

Sin City

Sin City (2005) was a success both commercially and among critics. Lauded for its closeness to the Graphic Novel and for the 'fresh' look. Safe to say, no film has ever been closer visually to its paper counterpart. As a piece of storytelling however, I found it to be something of a failure. This is bound to irritate some since the film has a huge following. It seems particularly popular among fans of Frank Miller's Graphic Novel. The thing is though, that all the cleverness and energy used to make the film look like a comic prevents me as a viewer from getting into the story. In many ways it feels like watching an overlong Music Video. I appreciate the effort and the technical quality but as every shot draws attention to itself I find it impossible to stop admiring the technical bravura and get into the narrative. So while the filmmakers (Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller) deserve praise for their willingness to experiment I sincerely hope this style will not be adopted on a grand scale. Thankfully there are filmmakers that use more of their energy to adapt the material in a way that fits the silver screen.

Batman Begins

A reset of the Batman franchise, Batman Begins was released in the same year as Sin City. Writer/Director Christopher Nolan (and co-writer David S. Goyer) effectively mined the Batman canon crafting an effective and strongly structured story. It was shot, not to mimic a comic, but in a manner that utilized the strengths of its chosen media. While parts of the imagery (the noir-ish look, the bat silhouette etc.) was clearly inspired by the comics, it never betrayed the cinematic-narrative. It delivered an experience that pulled me as a viewer into its universe and didn't let go until the ride was over. While it could be argued that the execution was less creative than Sin City's it clearly worked better as a film...


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?


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!


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


Drew Struzan

Childhood Hero

While I briefly mentioned Drew Struzan in another post he definitely deserves a post of his own. He is, according to George Lucas, "The only artist worth collecting since World War II". While I think this is erhaps taking it too far, he has been one of my heroes since my childhood. Not that I was aware of it at the time, but I used to marvel at those fantastic movie-posters wondering what kind of magic was used to make them. A film with a poster like that had to be worth seeing!

Incredible But True!

Only several years later did I find out about the man behind the art. No magic-tricks, just an amazing talent in the visual arts. That his parents actually named him Drew is one of those coincidents that it is hard to believe. But it is nevertheless true.

The Hero Of A Thousand Faces

Better Than The Movie?

Being one of the most recognizable poster-artists in the world he is probably best known for his work on Indiana Jones and Star Wars. Even if people don't know about the man, they're likely to recognize the style. In addition to the almost super human technical talent, he also seems to recognize the storytelling aspect needed of a Movie Poster: Teasing the audience to see the film. I dare say Drew's work is often the best thing about a movie!

Personally I just find it gratifying to see someone build their success on an indisputable talent. Mr. Struzan makes the posters with a variety of natural medias and techniques, without the aid of Photoshop or other digital tools. Come to think of it, that sounds a little bit like magic after all...


Setting the mood

How your story might start sooner than you think

May the 22nd Indiana Jones and the Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull opens in theaters worldwide. Probably the most eagerly awaited film of the year thanks to the huge following of the franchise and the time passed since the last one was released. I am part of the fold and have huge expectations for the next Indy-installment. I have a fairly clear idea about what I am going to get. Any fear of Lucas and Spielberg messing with the formula has been removed by the marketing material. As soon as the first teaser-poster was released I was convinced this film will deliver. "The Man With the Hat" is really back.

The poster was, of course, created by one of my heroes, Drew Struzan. He has become the semi-official Indy-illustrator and his work immediately puts you in the right frame of mind: This is Indiana Jones done the way it has always been done. This is Indiana Jones done right!

Only 3 more weeks left to wait!

A Lesson To Be Learned

I am not suggesting that you hire Mr. Struzan for all your projects (but if you have the means, feel free). It is however important to acknowledge that the presentation of your "story" starts earlier than you might think. If your "story" is a PowerPoint Presentation then what do you put up on the screen before you start the show? A blank slide? A Windows desktop? The latter will hardly put anyone in a mindset ready to be inspired. Is your story a DVD you've made or a book? Then what does the cover look like? Does it look good? Or more importantly, does it look right? If you've written your doctorate thesis on the use of nano-technology in cancer-treatment please tell me you didn't use the dreadful comic sans-font!

Of course the quality of your work might win your audience over, but why make it more challenging to begin with? Always think about your audience's first impression of your work. As the saying goes: "You only get one chance to make a good first impression". I'll leave you with this YouTube Classic. Robert Ryang made an "alternative" trailer for Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining". Try to imagine the audience choosing to see the film based on that trailer. The definition of setting the wrong mood.


Reinventing the wheel

Why not use the round wheels of filmmaking?

Changes don't always equal improvements

I'm a fairly conservative guy when it comes to Film Aesthetics. I don't mind people experimenting with the form and trying out new approaches . It is actually required to improve the art-form. What I really don't get though is how some of the world's current directorial hot-shots seem to let style getting in way of their stories. Surely storytelling is what directing is all about?

The problem

Yet, several "modern" directors go out of their wits to cram so much spectacle and fancy camerawork in there that it's bound to detract from the story. When watching films with excessive Camera Movements and edits that seem to be made simply to look "cool" I'm just annoyed. Huge vistas, helicopter fly-bys and some incredible effects-work is perfect to make great trailers, but have to be used with care if they're not to hurt the story.

So if it looks cool what's the problem? The problem is it pulls me out of the reality of the story. I dabble a bit with film-stuff myself and am generally interested in the technical side of things. Yet, I find that if a film works I never consciously notice the techniques while watching a film for the first time. (I probably will on second or third viewing). When I notice the filmmakers have failed in my book. It would be like reading a Crime Novel and then starting to think about how the sentences are built or perhaps what a brilliant font they've used.

The Wheel - it really works!

There are of course times when an author wants to attract attention to the language, but this is seldom the case in Thrillers where the narrative is the main focus. The odd bit is that there is a classic, well established language of film that seems to be lost on some contemporary directors. In many ways honed to perfection as early as 1941 with Orson Well's Citizen Kane. The choice of lenses, the lighting, composition and angles are all made to enhance the viewers understanding of the characters' psychological state. The brilliance of this is that it works on a subconscious level. If you want the viewer to empathize with a character you make sure that character is close to the camera and that we see the world through his or her eyes it. When the majority of the camerawork consists of huge battle-scenes shot from afar the viewer will eventually loose interest.

Watch the master

The guy who knows how

The thing that makes the situation even more absurd is the fact that the most successful director of the last 30 years does use this language. Steven Spielberg seems to have an incredible understanding of the psychological value of the camerawork. This is probably the reason why many will have a hard time pointing out what makes his films work so well. Witness the T-Rex attack on the car in Jurassic Park: Almost the entire scene is shot from inside the car. This way we, the audience, can feel the fear and despair experienced by the charcters. This is done despite having the coolest and most expensive animatronic T-rex available. Oh, how tempting it must have been to show off the beast in all its splendour! Yet, Spielberg obviously knew that this would work against the film.

Unfortunately a lot of the younger filmmakers today seem to have missed the point completely. While they are more than willing to let themselves be inspired by the fantastic premises of Spielberg's films the key to great filmmaking seems to elude them...


Bayeux Tapestry

When it comes to classic examples of visual storytelling the Bayeux Tapestry is one of my absolute favourites. The tapestry depicts the Battle of Hastings where the Norman army led by William the Conquerer defeated King Harold's Saxon army. A truly defining moment in British history and one that among other things is largely responsible for the heavy latin influence in the English language. (Something to think about the next time you eat pork).

In the context of this blog I will naturally focus on the use of visuals to tell the story. Told sequentially from left to right with vivid imagery and latin inscriptions it is constructed surprisingly similar to modern day Comic Strips. It is rather ironic that while the Bayeux Tapestry is celebrated as a brilliant piece of medieval art, comic strips are still occasionally shunned upon as an art form.

If you are dreading the continuation of this post to be a dry step-by-step description of the actual tapestry you are in luck. As the tapestry itself was meant to be experienced visually I won't spoil it for you. Thanks to animator David Newton the story depicting a huge battle, Halley's Comet and the fate of a nation can now be experienced in a better way:

Purists might object but I think this is a really clever example of how to present an ancient piece of artwork to a contemporary audience.


Winning visuals

Visual storytelling and the secret of greatness

This blog was eventually dedicated to visual storytelling simply because most of the posts I made had something to do with the subject. Reflecting over this made it clear to me that visual storytelling has always been a big part of my life. I've always been inclined towards the visual arts and traditional fairy-tales were a natural part of my upbringing. The last bit is something I as an adult find rather fascinating. The fairy-tales have been passed down through generations and are in many ways links to our forefathers. Their storyteller tradition is often referred to as an oral tradition but I find this definition a bit narrow.

What makes a great storyteller

The best storytellers have always been the ones who could paint the most vivid pictures. Surely these individuals used every trick they had up their sleeve. Acting out the different parts of their stories: An attacking boar. A sneaking hunter. Essentially creating visuals to enhance the experience.

Some of them might have used shadow-images on the cave walls and we know ancient men made beautiful cave-paintings, perhaps in an attempt to strengthen the impact of their words. The point I am trying to make is that we have always used visuals when telling our stories. It almost seems like it is an integral part of who we are as a species.


It does not work without an effort though. Storytelling does not automatically become great simply because visuals are added. The imagery has to support the story. If the two competes for attention neither one will reach their full potential. In the same way abstractions may confuse the audience. We are however probably more advanced when it comes to reading complex visuals than ever. No surprise, as we are constantly bombarded with the stuff. TV-commercials, billboards, computer-games, magazines, websites and films. We couldn't avoid it if we wanted to.

Tough crowd

The flip side to this is of course that your audience is not so easily impressed. Some try to counter this with a more-is-more approach. I personally find this incredibly annoying. Spectacle will make a spectacle of you. You might keep your audience's interest for a while, but both you and your audience might loose track of the story in the process. While the correct use of great visuals will help the story become all that it can be - they cannot elevate a mediocre story to greatness.

The good thing about the omnipresence of advanced visual stimuli is of course that inspiration should not be hard to come by. Inspirational sparks from other people's works can be the starting point of greatness. We all have to find our ideas somewhere and can't all expect to have a divine muse available every time we feel a bit dried out creatively. I am of course not talking about copying the work of others.

Be great

The final piece of the puzzle is not exactly revolutionary: Work. We all want to be the best that we can be and most of us can't expect to have more than a couple of truly great ideas in a lifetime. We might have quite a few good and decent ones but greatness is hard to come by. But as a great idea can be buried by poor execution we owe it to ourselves to make sure our moments of inspiration reach their full potential.

So to sum up:

  • Have something to tell.
  • Enhance/tell it with visuals, but make sure the visuals are right.
  • Work until you're satisfied it is as good as it can be.

Not the most original list of tips but certainly something it can be easy to loose track of. The first of these points is something that should be written on Hollywood Hill for every movie-executive to see...

Not So Common Craft

This is what I love about the web. On one of my many random search safaris through the maze that makes up what we all know as the internet, I came across the site ICT Inspirations. This is in itself an interesting blog (and I've bookmarked it), but what was really great was how the blog revealed to me the brilliance of The Common Craft Show, something I had never heard about before.

The Common Craft Show is made by Lee and Sachi LeFever and consists of small videos explaining complex ideas in a straightforward manner. They refer to themselves as interpreters which seems fairly accurate. Their simply brilliant (or brilliantly simple) style consists of well prepared cutouts, an equally well prepared voice over all put together by manipulating the cutouts physically in front of the camera and some really tight editing. The final product almost seems like a high-tech animated scrapbook and the effect is quite mesmerizing. Have a look at the below clip and see for yourself:

Common Craft's take on Google Docs

The first time I watched one of the clips I was hit by a hard spell of why-didn't-I-think-of-this-ulosis.

This is truly a brilliant example of visual storytelling if I ever saw one.


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.