Three Twenty One

Visual Essays

If you read books often, you may have noticed an emerging genre called creative nonfiction.

“Although it sounds a bit affected and presumptuous, “creative nonfiction” precisely describes what the form is all about. The word “creative” refers simply to the use of literary craft in presenting nonfiction—that is, factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid manner. To put it another way, creative nonfiction writers do not make things up; they make ideas and information that already exist more interesting and, often, more accessible.”
Lee Gutkind, founder of Creative Nonfiction Journal

The same thing is happening in film. I call them visual essays and they serve the same function: they are films that tell true stories or facts in a more interesting and accessible manner. Some examples:

Brian Greene’s films

Alain de Botton’s films

Paper Heart

These types of films have always existed, but I find that they are more prevalent right now. My theory gives four reasons:

  1. The topics that filmmakers are tackling. Over a century of filmmaking has occurred, and the ideas that we grapple with continue to evolve. Currently, I feel as though the mind is the final frontier and films reflect that. People want to learn about things that are more ethereal.
  2. The affordability of technology. With the advent of digital, all sorts of people can make movies about all sorts of things. Additionally, computer graphics has made it possible to illustrate ideas and images that would have been more difficult in the past.
  3. The sophistication of audience taste. Again, with over 100 years of movie knowledge, audiences know all the tricks. The language of watching a film is layered, and the viewer always wants more and in different ways.
  4. The multiple venues available for viewing. With more opportunities to distribute a film, the possibilities are more open to a wider variety of interests, thus opening the door for more voices in filmmaking to reach their audience.

What makes a movie a visual essay? My theory requires three criteria:

  1. They explore theoretical ideas. Moving away from traditional documentaries like biographies or historical films, visual essays instead deal with conceptual ideas. Take a look at Greene’s film on string theory or de Botton’s film on status. Films like these deal with ideas and concepts rather than tangible things.
  2. They use artistic methods to convey ideas. While not a necessity, I appreciate that computer graphics are a reason for the emergence of visual essays, so using graphics in an artistically sophisticated way is encouraged.
  3. They are accessible to everyone. This one is probably the most important one. I want this genre to be fun yet educational, therefore it should take the concepts and make them easier to understand, not merely dumbing them down.

So in order to fully explain what a visual essay is, I made one. It is called “RhizComics” and it is a film about comics and comic theory. I worked with the ever-so-smart Jason Helms, a professor at the University of Kentucky, basing the film on his dissertation. What we set out to do is to explain some complex literary theory in an artistic yet accessible way. I would like to think we succeeded.

The title screen of “RhizComics.”

So this is visual essays in a nutshell. Have you noticed these types of films? What else do you think would fit in this genre? Is this even a thing? Does genre even matter?

[1] Photo courtesy of the HubbleSite
[2] Photo by Jonathan Sahula
[3] Photo by Richard Baker
[4] Photo courtesy of the Paper Heart website
[5] Image by me

5 comments on “Visual Essays

  1. Pingback: Ugly « Three Twenty One

  2. isabel
    August 24, 2013

    Yes, you did succeed! RhizComics is a great visual discussion of comic theory. I read McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Making Comics last spring and I loved his ideas about closure across the panels and how that affected our perceptions and experience of comics. I hadn’t thought to connect it to our parallax visual mechanism, though. That was fascinating. “Time mapped across space” is quite poetic, too…


    • Shirley
      August 26, 2013

      Thank you so much, Isabel! I must give credit to Jason for the theory in this film, it is based on his writing. Very fascinating, I agree. 🙂


  3. Pingback: Experiencing Longforms | Three Twenty One

  4. Pingback: Visual Essays are Accessible | Three Twenty One

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This entry was posted on June 18, 2012 by in Film, Television, Visual Essays and tagged .


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