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Introduction to visual language

Dean Kelly, a Pixar story artist, talks about how visual storytelling uses size, shape, color, and framing to communicate emotions and ideas. He shows examples from Pixar movies like Ratatouille, Monsters University, and The Incredibles to explain how artists use these techniques to tell stories.

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Video transcript

(upbeat music) - Hi, I'm Dean Kelly and I'm a story artist here at Pixar. You know that old saying, a picture's worth a thousand words? Well it's true. Using simple visual cues, you can communicate all kinds of cool ideas and different emotions. And because of this, a single image can tell a whole story. (boing) Let's make this scene a simple drawing, like the storyboards we create at Pixar. The first thing you'll notice is that the bigger something is in the frame the more important it is. I'm clearly the most important thing in this frame. Choosing to put a character in a large space, where they appear small, is one way to communicate how vulnerable they are, or how big their world is. A low angle can make me seem commanding or menacing. I now seem a little unbalanced. Everything you see on screen is a choice. And all of it can help you tell stories. This is development art from Ratatouille. This single image clearly illustrates how important shape and framing are to storytelling. The artist who drew this chose everything in the frame, including the framing. Look at Remy; he's a tiny rat, but in this frame and from this perspective, he's the same size as the chefs. See how we separate from the kitchen with these panes. He's literally being kept from his dreams of being a chef, with these horizontal and vertical lines boxing him in. But Remy seems equal to the chefs, which is an important story point. Shape also helps us tell stories. Take these three main characters from Monsters University. The artist who designed Mike, Sully and Hardscrabble show shapes that amplified and reflected their character. Mike is essentially a ball. He's just not threatening or scary. Sully's a big rectangle; he's sturdy and he's tough to move. You believe he can be a scarer. Hardscrabble's a bunch of triangles. She's pointy and threatening. It helps her to be intimidating, in the film. (screeching) (rumbling) As a visual storyteller, you have a chance to guide your viewers in all sorts of ways. Color can guide the eye. Value, or how dark or light something is, can make it stand out from everything else in an image. In the movies size and position in the frame also matter. They have an effect on how we feel about a character or a moment. In the Incredibles script, this scene was just two people arguing, but the story artist used Helen's stretching abilities and Helen becomes the powerful one in this moment, just by being larger than Bob by stretching. But usually an artist will make a character closer and bigger in frame. In this storyboard I drew for Monsters University, you can see how I made Mike dominate the frame by putting him in the foreground, close to camera. Mike is coming into his own as a scare coach. And I made him the biggest thing in frame, because he's the strongest character in this moment; stronger than Sully. We can communicate so many things using only visual language. In these next lessons you get to explore these ideas and use them to help tell your own stories.