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Making sense of space

In communication, images play many different roles. One is to show what is there. Another is to tell a story. To be aware of these two functions is the first step to understanding how to build a tale with audio-visual images.

Imagine you want to travel to the Swiss Alps to a spot renowned for the beauty of its panorama. You are looking forward to your trip and since it is a famous spot, you anticipate the event by looking at images of the live webcams that are on-site. How do you understand and decipher the meaning of these images? First, you take for granted that these pictures show what is there. Only people with a predilection for conspiracy theories might ask if somebody has staged the landscape for the beholder – even if the point of view is obviously the result of someone choosing to put the camera in exactly that location. But basically, you look at these images as depicting reality as it is.

Now imagine the same webcam sequence as an element in one of the scenes of a thriller. You see how one of the protagonists crosses the frame – a tiny figure only identifiable by the red coat the audience knows from beforehand. A second lonely and anonymous figure follows the first one. The frame then shows the empty landscape again, the camera stays put. You hear a shout and a shot…

You watch this thriller on a streaming service. Are you looking at the images in the same way as in the first example? Hopefully not, or you might never go visit this beautiful spot in real life. Instead, you take those images as belonging to a story; their first duty is to construct a believable element of a fictitious world. You might as in the first example wonder what this world looks like outside the frame. But you will prioritize the narrative and forgive the images if they do not show the spot exactly as it is.

In a definition going back to the classical Greek philosophers, we name the first concept of image mimetic and the second one diegetic. Basically, if images are understood as mimetic they are understood as representing reality. Diegetic images are understood as representing the world of the narrative.

How does this distinction help the construction of a video abstract? Basically, the awareness of these two possible dimensions of the image helps keep your video succinct.

The cameras in our smartphones produce a myriad of pictures that are intended mimetically. They say: “Look, I was there”, “Look, I did that”, “Watch, I wear that”. And even if the poses we strike in selfies quote the diegetic realm of advertisement, films and media, we probably intend to show that we are real. “To show” proves something.

However, a lot of these images are boring, since they show the same thing again and again. A reality that is seemingly captured seamlessly does not tell an interesting story. True storytelling starts with a choice: what is important, and what is less important? How does my narrative lead from one moment to the next? In a video abstract, we need to show what we research; the decision how we tell it helps us create an interesting story.

Take for instance the lab tour mentioned as a possible ingredient for a video abstract. You might pick up your phone and march through your lab, talking to your collaborators that are sometimes off-frame and sometimes in frame. Seen in one uninterrupted shot, this might seem very authentic and immediate, as we are used to these representations. But what are you really learning when you watch such a video – and could you not imagine a short version coming to the point more quickly?

That is where your mimetic lab tour might turn into a diegetic enterprise: what are the main points? What is special and what can I leave out since there are aspects of the lab I do not need to show – for instance because they are non-distinct from similar labs around the world? And how can I create a scene with my shots that depicts space without disrupting it, even if it does not show every nook and cranny?

There are some tricks for that and we will address them in a later step. But first, here is an exercise for you:

Look at your work space. Your task is to present it to somebody who has never seen it. Unfortunately, your audio equipment has broken down – you cannot use language for explanation. In addition, your addressee lives somewhere that has very bad connectivity. You cannot use video, you need to reduce your image sequence to five stills.

Now take a camera and construct two image sequences. The first one should convey to the addressee what you think is important about your work space. But you cannot just show one picture with a specific detail – you need to embed it in a context. The second image sequence should enable your addressee to draw an accurate plan of the room. Your addressee needs to see your sequence in the order that you have planned.

Which of these two is more of an exercise in mimesis – and which is a diegetic task? Think about your strategies – and test your sequences with people who do not know your place of work. Observe how they make sense of your image sequence.


University of Basel