Introduction to Visual Narrative Systems and Contextual Design:
Closed image System
Sequential Image System
Progressive Image System
For the purpose of identifying how cinematic design choices apply to different visual storytelling media it is worth defining and contrasting three basic visual narrative systems.
Any static, or unchanging, image such as a painting, illustration, photograph, poster or advertisement is a Closed Image System by which the image is self-contained and all meaning or visual narrative comes from within the image itself.
A sequential image system is any set of two or more closed image systems that convey a higher level of meaning through their relationship to each other. The most common examples being comic strips, comic books and picture books, whereby the sequencing of images indicate passage of time, whether linear or non-linear. Narrative meaning can be conveyed through each individual image, through the relationship of individual images and the system as a whole. The definitive resources on sequential design is Scott McCloud's, Understanding Comics.
A Progressive Image System is a closed image system that changes with time. Constrained to screen or stage, movies, television, animation, and theatrical performances are all in a state of constant flux from one moment to the next, with narrative meaning changing through each moment. Like the sequential image system, a higher level of meaning arises from the relationship between
moments and across the system as a whole.
Primarily focused on visual storytelling choices applied feature film and animation, the main emphasis of this series is on Progressive Design. Simply put, Progressive Design is the capacity for a design choice to change relative to time, and the resulting meaning that arises from this change. A great primer for Progressive Design is Bruce Block's, The Visual Story.
Contextual Design is the understanding and crafting of design choices relative to the context of each visual narrative system. Within a progressive image system, context design is the mindful application of design choices to craft higher meaning between images and across time. Within sequential narrative systems is is the application of design choices to images relative to each other to create higher level meaning. Even closed image systems, although self-contained, can illicit higher level meaning through its relationship to external context.