Masters of Narrative Design™ 2: Bruce Block

    Bruce A. Block

    This is the second part in an ongoing NDE series featuring interviews with Masters of Narrative Design™. While a seemingly new term, the design of story experiences is nothing new. As game developers are increasingly looking to create meaningful virtual narrative experiences, looking back at the lessons learned by these masters becomes increasingly valuable. Today’s master is Bruce Block filmmaker, teacher, storyteller; in his seasoned career he has produced and consulted on more than 40+ films. Unlike most masterful wizards, Bruce shares his secrets both in seminars and in his book “The Visual Story“, the methods he describes there are used in film, television, animation and design studios all over the world, and best of all, go into making the most compelling stories for any screen for the past 100+ years. Today I’m hoping to see what virtual world creators can learn from his wealth of experience.

    Stephen Erin Dinehart:  Bruce, thank you for taking the time to speak to me. In your book, “The Visual Story“, you define the basic visual components as “Space, Line, Shape, Tone, Color, Movement, Rhythm” are these arbitrary? How did you come up with this set of components?

    An example of a color wheel

    Bruce Block: I wish I had come up with them…I’d have trademarked the components. The seven basic visual components are derived from about 2,000 years of art. Its just lots and lots of people drawing and trying to discover what works and what doesn’t work. Go into any room in any museum in the world and its really full of lots of old and new examples of someone communicating a story, mood or emotion using the seven basic visual components. Some people debate that there is an eighth basic component: time. Its possible that they’re right but I found many “time ideas” are too hard to control. The part of time that I do like I incorporated into the component of rhythm.  I am constantly reading new and old texts on visual structure looking for another component to add to the list. In searching for two decades, I’ve not found any constructive suggestions for an addition.

    Lately, I’ve been asked a lot of questions about 3-D, which is currently entering a technical renaissance. It fits very neatly into the existing component of space. Every time a new technology is developed which “changes everything” it really falls easily into one of the existing components. I don’t think anyone is going to discover a new color or letter of the alphabet. I’m not closed to the idea of a wonderful, new visual component popping onto the scene, but a lot of people much smarter than me spend a lot of time looking for another visual component and have come up empty.

    SED: So It’s more of a classical design approach? How often do you get to apply these principles in practice?

    BB:  Pretty much every day.  If I’m not working on a movie, I’m teaching or consulting on something visual. I like talking about visual structure so I let it happen.  I get emails with questions about my book and I answer them all.  Do I try arranging the dinner table or my sock drawer so its aesthetically pleasing? No way. Can I go to a movie, just enjoy it and not pick it apart visually? Absolutely yes, but the visual components and the principles for using them are so satisfying to work with and solve so many problems that I don’t shy away from applying them in professional situations.

    SED:  It’s got to take some serious chutzpah to consult on visuals. Do you see an improvement in audience experience through the use of these principles?

    Bruce Block on the set of Christmas with the Kranks

    BB:  Absolutely…without a doubt. I watch a lot of movies and I’ll go to see the good ones and the bad ones. The bad ones are usually bad because the story and characters aren’t engaging and then, often, the filmmakers ignore the visuals. Visual structure aside, the audience is going to hook into the story and characters first. But when you see a movie with a large audience you can feel their reactions to everything. When I produce feature films, we always do test screenings and your own antenna instantly tell you how something is playing. I’ll do the same thing when I watch other people’s films…I can disengage and feel how the audience is reacting. If the visual structure is really working for me, it becomes invisible and when the movie is over I’ll know I saw something great. It doesn’t matter if its an action film, a comedy or an intimate drama…you can sense if it worked. I’ll go back and see a movie a second or third time with an audience just to study what the visual controls were. It takes a lot of time and effort to do this (and I don’t do it with every movie I see) but it’s the only way I can really gauge how the movie was put together and if its working for the audience. A stand-up comic can test and rehearse their material every time they get up in front of an audience, sense how its going and make adjustments. A very experienced stand-up comic knows what works. In movies, TV or games, we don’t have the same tryout arena so I’ve tried to find ways to create one. Between my direct and indirect experience with controlling and watching audiences, I know a lot about what will work. The most important thing to me is not just understanding the visual principles but knowing how an audience will react to them. The visual theory is useless without understanding how to use it and what its effect will be.

    An example of color scriptSED:  Right, it’s about crafting the space for emotive reactions from your audience. People are smart, we are hard wired for this stuff. That’s one of the many reasons I see this methodology as very pertinent to experience design, in games and elsewhere. When you give seminars on visual structure and storytelling to game developers do you find that it is something that resonates with them?

    BB: Well, there’s always someone who sits with his or her arms tightly folded scowling at me. I know I’ll never convince them that there’s a visual language they can employ to make their game better but a majority of the game developers I deal with really ‘get it’. Some developers don’t see the connection between movies and games. Sometimes they think a movie is story driven and a game isn’t. That’s a separate discussion, but a game is a series of pictures exactly like a movie, a TV show, a music video, a commercial or a documentary. A game uses visual structure exactly like any of these other media. Its not that movies are at the top of the pyramid and everything should copy a movie. The top of the pyramid is not one specific medium. The top of the pyramid is: “structuring sequential pictures”.

    All pictures, no matter how we see them, are based on the same visual components. An audience is going to compare everything that they see to everything else they see. If a movie can give them a better roller coaster ride than a computer game…which one will they gravitate towards? If a game is a better ride than a graphic novel, what will the audience want?  I think the audience always wants a better, different ride. What does better mean? I think it means: faster, higher, bigger, more intense AND I think it means slower, lower, smaller and less intense. The ride is not only about more but ALSO about less. It’s all about the orchestration or structure. I’ve been very lucky to deal with smart game developers and they know that their work can’t be separated from the other choices bombarding the public. Developers know they have a unique platform but it has to compete with many other entertainment platforms, many of which already know that storytelling and visual structure make for highly entertaining and successful experiences.
    Freytag's Pyramid: a five act structure
    SED: Could you define “story”, as you use the word?

    A story has a beginning, middle and an end. It has as conflict that
    builds in intensity until it reaches a point of no return and must be
    resolved. A story must have engaging characters that the audience cares
    about to the point where they want to know what happens next. The story
    is the framework upon which everything else must hang. ‘Everything
    else’ means the visuals (photography, set design, costumes, props) and
    the sound (dialogue, sound effects, music).  The story is the
    motor…nothing can move forward without a good motor. Whenever I
    discuss the visual structure of anything, my first remark is always :
    “What’s the story and conflict?”  If I can’t get a good answer, there’s
    no reason to discuss anything else.

    Bruce Block's The Visual Story 2nd Edition CoverSED: In your book “The Visual Story” you practically define visual structure and outline it’s use, when did you first get exposed to this sort of visual communication language?

    BB:  I was interested in photography at a very young age…like ten and I was already experimenting with still cameras, lighting and film. My parents encouraged me with some equipment and some books and they enrolled me in drawing classes at the local art museum. Although there was no formally taught connection between fine art and photography, I was integrating the two without even knowing it.  I would draw lines, shapes and tones in the art class and then use the same visual elements in my photography.  I was fascinated with two things: portraiture and abstract graphics.  I found that color, light & shadow and line could communicate almost as much as the face itself. I spent a lot of time as a kid watching old movies and trying to duplicate the visual control the professionals used. At the same time I was getting interested in theatre directing and design. As a teen, I started to apply the things I had learned in still photography and art in the way I staged plays and designed the lighting and sets. I also started making 8mm movies. It was a revelation for me to see how the same visual elements I used in drawing class affected the audience’s reaction to the theatrical shows and movies I created.  I would often experiment and change the stage lighting from performance to performance to see how it changed the mood and emotions of the audience. It was real-time experimentation and I learned a lot. I eventually went to Carnegie Mellon University and majored in theatre directing. Later at USC I took a class in visual structure that was taught by a retired Disney animator. The class was based on the teachings of Slavko Vorkapich who was sort of the ‘father of movie montages’.  Slavko had passed away but his theories about visual control were well known. It was at USC that all of the stuff I had been experimenting with for so many years was formally defined for me. I expanded and built on the principles from that class, I took over teaching it and eventually wrote “The Visual Story”.

    Bertolucci's The ConformistSED: What is one of your favorite examples of well-executed visual storytelling? Why?

    BB: One of my favorites (and I have many) is Orson Welles film of Franz Kafka’s The Trial made in 1962. Its very theatrical, very art house, grim and absolutely great. Welles used a variety of locations including the then abandoned d’Orsay in Paris as a backdrop to tell this story of an insignificant individual trapped in a paranoid world. He found the best way to picturize what he felt Kafka’s story was about. Welles set up visual rules that were motivated by the story and communicated how the author wanted the audience to feel. But I would say the exact same thing about Lawrence of Arabia, The Conversation, Singin’ in the Rain, Mary Poppins, Babel, Ordinary People, The Graduate, Jaws, Juno, The Shining, Closer, Punch Drunk Love, Fargo, There Will Be Blood, Traffic, Paper Moon, Fanny & Alexander, The Godfather, Finding Nemo, Run Lola Run, The Killers, Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, Kill Bill, In the Mood For Love, The Apartment, and on and on.
    SED: Thank you for you time Bruce, it’s been a pleasure.

    Anytime I hear Bruce speak I learn something new, his knowledge is dynamic and candid. Best of all, utilizing the tools he freely offers can help us all to create products that communicate with better visual efficiency. For the Narrative Design Explorer™, I’m Stephen Erin Dinehart, thank you for your time.

    Bruce’s Book The Visual Story can be found at:

    Find more information about Bruce Block at the links below:

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