Fluency in the Visual Language

“Show, don’t tell”

That’s a common criticism given to writers of television and film. If there is a way to get information across to the viewer by letting them see it, then that is the preferred way over simply talking about that information.

There’s a certain feeling to watching something and being able to figure out a rule without being told directly what the rule is. But at the same time, there is rarely a work of art that requires the viewer to rely on the visual language to understand 100% of the story. It turns out, trusting the audience to understand entirely through the visual, expecting them to be completely fluent, can create the most engaging stories there are.

I will begin on very well worn ground. A video game called “Journey”.

For those who don’t know, Journey is a game where you play as a faceless, nameless, genderless, person making their way through a desert toward a mountain with a great light at the peak.

You are introduced to this story by climbing a hill and then seeing the mountain and light. No one tells you this is where you have to go or what you have to do. In fact, you can try to walk away, but soon find yourself turned back toward the mountain.

As you progress, you discover the history of the world. Not through journals or intricate cut scenes. You walk through it. You find ruins and old murals of civilization. You discover that with scarf fabric you can defy gravity. You see how these living scarfs helped civilization grow, and then you find out how civilization destroyed itself. You encounter machines based on the living scarfs, ones that destroy the originals and try to destroy you. You slide down hills of sand, walk through dangerous caves, climb a snowy mountain, and encounter the entire hero’s journey narrative without a single word being uttered.

The experience makes for one of the most compelling and engrossing video games ever made, and a true work of art. One that I honestly believe makes the player a better audience member than they were before.

This brings me to another desert based story to be understood entirely through visuals. Mad Max: Black and Chrome.

Black and Chrome is a fan edit of Fury Road based on this quote by George Miller:

One thing I’ve noticed is that the default position for everyone is to de-saturate post-apocalyptic movies. There’s only two ways to go, make them black and white — the best version of this movie is black and white, but people reserve that for art movies now. The other version is to really go all-out on the color. The usual teal and orange thing? That’s all the colors we had to work with. The desert’s orange and the sky is teal, and we either could de-saturate it, or crank it up, to differentiate the movie. Plus, it can get really tiring watching this dull, de-saturated color, unless you go all the way out and make it black and white.

He had also wanted a special feature on the Fury Road blu-ray to include a black and white version of Fury Road with all the dialogue audio taken out. Unfortunately, this version was never created for the blu-ray. Happily the internet, much like life, finds a way. An anonymous fan created that exact version of Fury Road.

No dialogue. Black and white. Thus turning the best action movie of the summer into the best silent film of 2015.

And it works! I mean I personally miss the saturated color pallet of the original cut, but the effect of Black and Chrome is striking. The story is told just as well with absolutely zero dialogue audio. I think there’s an experiment in this as well. If an audience member could watch Black and Chrome, and understand it as well as someone who saw the normal cut, then they would have a whole new understanding of the visual language.

This could help anyone in life. Being able to process much more from how things look rather than just what’s being said. It opens up a whole new layer to life. As a person, I want to increase my visual literacy to improve my social capabilities. As a writer, I have to tell stories in the visual language to make them the best they can be.

I know my two examples are very similarly desert themed, and I wonder what other massively effective, mainly visual stories there are out there.

Oh, yeah! The Artist! Hey guys, remember when we gave The Artist an oscar?

-JP

P.S. Black and Chrome has been taken offline due to copyright infringement. It lived, it died, and, since this is the internet, I am sure it lives again somewhere. In the meantime, the fan edit used to be found here: https://blackandchrome.wordpress.com/

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