Advance the Narrative

Ken Burns, Documentary filmmaker

Ken Burns

Advancing the narrative refers to the ability to tell a story in a sequential, engaging, interesting and thought-provoking manner. With video we have the capability to do so using a variety of methods. These include:

  • voice over
  • audio music
  • audio motion graphics
  • animation
  • still image photography
  • live motion video

Within each of these separate areas there are countless ways to creatively manipulate them individually and weave them collectively, all for the goal of advancing the narrative of the story.

The narrative is always advanced through video/film by the collaborative or cumulative effect of several of these areas together, but only one at a time becomes the primary motivator. In other words, at any given moment within a video, either the voice-over, music, animation, still, or live action takes the lead in telling the story while the other areas assume supportive or complimentary roles.

This is similar to the way in which we organize visual elements on a poster, for example. We first determine the main message and then determine a visual hierarchy between the photos, display type, text type, etc. If all those elements were equal in visual weight they would be competing with each other visually and result in giving a confusing message. With video we also determine a hierarchy of elements for the purpose of advancing the narrative.

One of the fun things about video is that this hierarchy may change over time throughout the course of the video. The story might be introduced by music/audio, for example, with a very tight close-up of a still image which acts in a secondary role at this beginning point. As the video rolls, the image might zoom out to see the complete picture and as a result, the photo now assumes the lead in advancing the overall narrative and the music becomes more secondary. We can accent this shift in hierarchy by doing things like changing the volume (or pan) on the audio or going from b & w to color (in addition to the zoom out) on the image.

Another aspect of this capability to shift the lead role between different aspects of video/film is the possibility of telling a story-within-a-story, or picture-within-a-picture. Utilizing the pan and zoom effects on a still photographic image can exploit this particular aspect in countless and very creative ways. Ken Burns documentaries on Jazz, Baseball and The Civil War are prime examples of advancing the narrative through shifts in video hierarchy and story-within-a-story techniques. Look for specific ways in which the story is told and how images are sequenced and presented. How are supplemental images and sound effects used to augment a main theme. Look for examples of visual hierarchy, what elements are being “juggled” within the overall context of the video-story. Are they all given equal importance? Does their importance in relation to one another change? How is a single image exploited for maximum effect, for maximum story-telling?

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