A Case Study In Visual-Emotional Storytelling
How a 2018 New Zealand Animated Short Film Uses Visual Tricks To Create Emotional Resonance Without a Traditional Narrative
Just released today on YouTube was a “little” personal project from Irya Ajith, a New Zealand architecture major with some real animation talent. It’s called Virus in Paradise and can be watched below.
Ajith describes the work as focused “on realism with a mix of folklore”, something quickly apparent when watching Virus in Paradise. Mytho-poetic references abound, with everything from Christianity to Roman legend represented.
Yet, what does it all mean? There is a plot provided in the production notes (“a newly recruited machine (Sarah) investigates the disappearance of a mother and daughter, victims of a virus capable of possessing its host”), though it may not help much in the actual watching of the film. But it also doesn’t need to.
Like the police droid in the film, we are expected by the filmmaker to be confused at the literal events (and the literal sequences of events) unfolding.
What Ajith and model designer Leo Ribeyrolles have done instead is create a short film experience more given to the avant-garde tradition than to the typical Hero’s Journey. There will surely be some critics of this film’s method (there already are in popular forums), but upon further investigation, it’s hard to deny what Virus is trying to do (create a purely emotional and aesthetic form of storytelling) rather than what people want it to do (tell a formulaic, linear, and relatable story).
The Art of Visual-Emotional Storytelling
Part of the reason Virus in Paradise succeeds as a device of visual-emotional storytelling is in its use of images to tell a story rather than the traditional placeholders. Most traditionally-minded films rely on using specific lines over and over, or re-asserting certain themes at key points in the movie, to help an audience understand what the film is “about” or what it’s “trying to say.”. Ajith instead relies on visual repetition and visual contrasts to help viewers re-interpret what a film can be “about” after all. That a film can be a “story” can be not just about one person, but all people (or beings), and not just about our world, but all possible worlds (or ideas of worlds).
In this way, the film exhibited here clearly believes in the power of cinematic images as ideas in themselves, ideas that can be transmitted to the audience not through spoken or archetypal languages, but through pure visual stimuli. Now that’s an idea we at Miniflix can get behind.
But how specifically does one share visual ideas? Let’s see!
Visual Matching & Visual Layering
Like with any computer-generated (or hand-drawn) world created for an animated film, the environment must have its own cinematic logic.
Ajith chooses to, like a 20th century painter, create logical connections about this particular cinematic world through its geometric shapes and forms. Early in the film this is established with a shot of a diamond shaped etched into a creepily-crowded blackboard followed immediately by diamond-shaped debris (also settled in the middle of the frame) in a scene that can only be described as post-apocalyptic and war-ravaged.
What does this connection mean narratively speaking? Not that much, really. But in the case of visual-emotional storytelling, this would be the wrong question to ask anyway. The only important connection (and the only logical one brought up in this particular cinematic universe) is in the shape (the diamond) linking the two images inextricably in the mind of the reader as an idea. What can be deduced from this correlation? By the end of the film, one can, for example, draw implied similarities between the “2-D” world of the mother and daughter’s tragic story and the tragic state of abandonment and absence in the “3-D” world. The diamond in each shot also suggests an inherent connection between the world of the humans (hand-drawn sequences) and the world of the robots (computer-generated sequences). Artificial and human life bleed into one, explaining how Roman mythology can become embodied in a technological wonder such as a virus.
Virus carries with it many other examples of visual matching, each with their own resonances and logical connections.
The film even returns to certain visual ideas again and again throughout the film, such as this one:
Each re-occurrence reminds us of the visual idea it created when first introduced. Bringing back striking images like this one over and over again can often be criticized as filmmaking laziness (see reviews for any Terrence Malick film) but if understood on the level of visual-emotional storytelling, the critics have less ground to stand on.
Though the mere fact that certain images look alike or echo each other are not enough to evoke serious questions and conversations. They also needs examples of visual layering: something this film has in spades.
The greatest example of visual layering can be found in the contrasting worlds of the mother-daughter sequences (played out as memories, or a re-telling, of a tragic event) and of the present-day sequences where we follow an android investigating the virus. The former are done in striking (often terrifying) hand-drawn sequences. The latter are in fully-rendered computer-generated animation. The use of hand-drawn sketch animation (considered almost a novelty now) to represent the humans and CGI (the standard and paragon of realism in animation) to represent the machine world is a strong and subversive enough choice to develop questions in the viewers’ heads about what is “real” or “less real” about one art form over another (or one form of living beings over another). It also begs questions about the ephemeral nature of dreams and memories (represented by the hand-drawn animation) and the sobering solidity of the ever-present (the CGI post-apocalypse).
The more connotations we can bring to these visual comparisons, the more layering of complexity and ambiguity we will be able to find in the film’s non-traditional understanding of storytelling.
Once the visual layering of the connotations get mixed in with the visual matching of the forms and iconography, the possibilities for variety in stimulation of thoughts and emotions among viewers become endless.
The ideas of visual matching and visual layering as they pertain to creating non-narrative, visual-emotional stories are quite complex, and would need many more examples from the film to fully flesh out. So from one short film fanatic to another, do yourself a favor and watch Virus in Paradise. Then again. Then one more time. See what purely visual ideas are communicated to you. Unpack the connotations of the images, and the visual connections found within.
And most importantly, celebrate the complexity and artistry of ambitious short films being made by filmmakers all over the world!