Visual Story by Bruce Block REVIEW

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Bruce Block’s book on constructing a visual story  is both rewarding and frustrating at the same time.

As Nancy Meyer‘s testimonial says on the back cover, The Visual Story “is the only book of its kind” and to my knowledge, she’s right. To find a single volume that touches on the elements of visual design that Block’s book does is nigh on impossible; trust  me, I’ve tried. 

After reading The Visual Story more than once, I have searched for clarification and depth to some of these ideas from other sources and have, for the large part, struck out. So Bruce Block‘s book, The Visual Story, is a lone beacon and for that it’s well worth the read. In fact, can be read in eight different languages. For a book on filmmaking, that’s a feat.

visual story
The Visual Story Front Cover

Block breaks down the visual structure of a story into seven basic components (cast members as he calls them) : space, line and shape, tone, colour, movement and rhythm. The book does not attempt to “leave you with a set of rigid textbook definitions and laws” but merely to open up the possibilities for the director. After all, these components are there whether the director is aware of them or not.

What Block’s book does right is to take complex technical ideas and present them in an easy to digest manner. Block points to four types of space: deep space, flat space, limited space and ambiguous space. These are important consideration with regards to staging a scene and the orientation of the audience and Block covers it off well.  So too, chapter eight on Visual Rhythm. Here Block’s approach really works as rhythm is difficult to discern with a visual image.

Rhythm is easy to experience but difficult to describe. Rhythm is perceived in three diferent ways: we see it, we hear it, we feel it … Every rhythm is made up of three subcomponents: alternation, repetition and tempo. 

The author takes a simple dot in the centre of an empty frame and then repeats the shot with the dot moved off centre, thus unbalancing the composition which adds contrast and intensity. This concept is then applied to solids in the frame and finally to people in the frame. If you’ve ever wondered how to create a visual rhythm, then Block succeeds in his explanation.

Block’s introduction states that he “wanted to remove the wall between theory and practice so that visual theory would be easy to understand and use”.  Here, Block’s only been partially successful.  His book is full of theory and light on its practical implementation beyond the surface. Visual StoryHe suggests films and sequences but fails to point out the deeper methods at work. Why do the action sequences build from simple to complex in Raiders of the Lost Ark? What’s the point of the X motif in The Departed? How is the tonal range in Manhattan expressing subtext?  Block points out many films to look at but fails to say why to look at them beyond the surface. How has the director / designer / writer / DP related the themes of the storytelling  and delivered the visual subtext to bring a character journey to life. Most importantly, how are those decision related to enlightening the theme of the story?

The penultimate chapter is where The Visual Story fully succeeds in the introductory chapter’s promise of practicality. Chapter nine, Story and Visual Structure, comes so late in the book however that many reads will have become lost or bogged down in the what rather than the why. This chapter makes better reference to how a story’s structure can be manipulated by the director. This enlightenment would have been more useful scattered throughout the book as each new idea is explained. Even better would to be to include a short screenplay and illustrated these ideas along the way  with reference to the short story in question. This would illustrate the why  in a practical, applied method.

If The Visual Story was written with the same approach as Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies – with all creative decisions relating to “What is the movie really about” – then Block’s book would be untouchable. That’s not this book, however, although it is pretty darn good anyway.

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