The Parts Versus the Whole

And how to distinguish them…

Director Alexander Mackendric (1913-1993) states: “What a film director really directs is the audiences attention.” That goes for every visual storyteller, of course.
That which distinguishes itself from the rest is the thing that stands out and attracts our attention.
The effect of details stems therefore from their relation to the other elements in the whole. In order to be able to use details properly, it is important to understand how we (people) distinguish main issues from side issues, what stands out, what we focus on and why. The (inborn) characteristics of the visual system, which arise from needs that we have as a human being, play a role in this. As hunters and collectors, for example, we need to be able to quickly identify a prey, find food in fields and forests, be on our guard against predators and unexpected movements.

Still from the movie Whisky Galore! (1949) by Alexander Mackendrick. The head stands out in shape, colour and liveliness.

Alex Mackendrick - hiskey Gallore film still-1
Alex Mackendrick - Ladykillers film still-1

Still from the movie The Ladykillers (1955 – originally in black and white) by Alexander Mackendrick.

Alex Mackendrick - Ladykillers film still-2

The gaze and the pointing finger guide our attention toward the advertisement in the window.

Alex Mackendrick - Ladykillers film still-3

The lurking shadow guides our attention away from the ad and gets us in suspens.

In 1923, a group of Gestalt psychologists studied the visual perception which led some principles that illustrate how man perceives and makes sense of the world around him. (Gestalt is German and means as much as ‘organized’ or ‘whole’ form.) The American Professor of Psychology Edward Boring concluded in 1942 that there are 114 Gestalt laws (many of which complement each other or overlap). Only a few apply to visual aspects.
The findings of these Gestalt psychologists largely overlap with the findings of cognitive psychologists who study visual sailience (‘visual conspicuousness’) and visual search. What we see as a whole (Gestalt) and what attracts our attention and therefore distinguishes itself from the whole (what is conspicuousness and described in the visual salience and search principles) are two sides of the same coin.
Alex Mackendrick - Sweet Smell of Succes

GIF from the movie Sweet Smell of Success (1957) by Alexander Mackendrick.

We make this visual distiction at an early stage of perception by means of fairly simple visual principles: such as difference in color, shape, contrast and direction or a combination thereof.

I’ll start this detailed investigation on the impact of well-placed details in graphic narrative and communication looking at how the parts relate tot the whole, studying these Gestalt principles, comparing them with visual salience and search techniques. I’ll mix theory and practice providing many examples from fine-art, comics and film.

Then I’ll investigate and how our experience an expectations guides our sight. Discussing the principles of ‘priming’, again with many examples.

Once that’s all clear, I’ll go into how it’s all put together, discussing composition techniques.

To conclude with a examples where these principles and techniques influenced character, setting and plot. How they made a huge impact on the whole.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

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