Ever since I was a kid, I have been enthralled by movies. I remember watching a father clown fish braving the entire ocean to find his son, a prince leading his slaves into an exodus, and a dead girl being brought back to life with a kiss. Though I did not fully understand the significance of these movies, I was nonetheless being taught the values of family, leadership, and the power of love. The movies did not have to say what they were teaching me; they were showing me through their characters, actions, and symbols - their visuals. While working on the documentary, Your Kingdom Come, I began to have a better appreciation of what we see on our screens and also a better understanding of my own story.
There’s a rule out there about storytelling that says, “show, don’t tell.” Of course, in videos, people typically talk, but for the most part, movies don’t have to explain things as the story progresses. As director Andrew Stanton stated during his 2012 Ted Talk, “The audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don’t want to know that they’re doing that.” He advises storytellers to give audiences two plus two but to not give them four. The audience will figure it out and will feel more satisfied while doing so. He should know because, as a director and producer at Pixar, he’s done this many times. In fact, he and the Pixar team do this sometimes without a single word of dialogue. Up has one of the most precious love stories never spoken, and people fell in love with the mainly mute Wall-E, despite his lack of a vocabulary. This isn’t a new way of storytelling. It’s been used for centuries.
In the early days of filmmaking, directors, producers, and writers had to think about how to tell stories without any spoken dialogue. After all, there was no sound in movies back then. D.W. Griffith (Birth of a Nation), Fritz Lang (Metropolis), Charlie Chaplin (The Gold Rush), and many others all had to show audiences captivating tales with no words spoken in them, though with the occasional use of text, yet their movies terrified audiences, made them laugh, and influenced conversations within the culture. Their stories were captivating, despite the lack of verbal communication. How could this be? It's the same way with paintings, sculptures, and other forms of art. Take Jean-Honore Fragonard's The Swing for example. Here is an image of a girl on a swing being playfully pushed by a man behind her, while another man hides in nearby bushes underneath the girl as her legs seductively spread apart for his view. In this one image, there is a conflict happening and characters with varying goals interacting with each other. This is a story. Additionally, ancient churches have paintings along their walls and ceilings of biblical stories, such as Michelangelo's artwork on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. These were used as both a tribute to the religion and a visual aid for the illiterate. For those that couldn't read the Bible, they had the paintings to help them better understand the stories and lessons from the sacred texts. This unique form of visual storytelling can even be traced back even further in time with cave paintings. Though barbaric and undefined, these images showcase triumphant hunts over animals and other brave acts of our distant ancestors. From the dawn of time to modern filmmaking, visuals have always been an important part of storytelling.
I always pictured the stories of Jesus taking place in colorless structures, sand-filled lands, and hot climates - but my interpretations were completely wrong. Israel is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to, filled with gorgeous green scenery, painted lilies on the valleys, and landscapes straight out of J.R.R. Tolkien's imagination. Bethlehem wasn't some dusty old town. It was a mountain that was covered with abundant plant life with a fantastic view of the valley below. Mt. Tabor is a lovely sight to behold from both below and on top of the mountain. Seriously, I fell in love with the land, from the Sea of Galilee to the Jezreel Valley. And by going to these places, I can then picture the stories of Jesus. Sitting atop the flowing fields on the Mount of Beatitudes, getting crowded in the tight alleyways of Jerusalem, getting winded going up Mt. Tabor — I was walking where Jesus walked. Suddenly, the stories came alive in me. His words made more sense.
Through the documentary, I hope other people experience the same revelation. By seeing the scenery, the symbols, and the actual locations, people won’t just be told Jesus went to the Jordan River; they’ll see it. They won’t just hear about the shepherd’s meeting an angel in the field; they’ll see the field. They won’t just hear a story — they can see it in front of them, just like the cave painters of yore, and the painters, sculptors, and filmmakers after them. You see, by using these visuals to tell the stories found in the Gospels, the documentary is inviting people to journey with the filmmakers. Even though the viewers can’t necessarily physically go to Israel, the images on the screen, like any good motion picture, will capture the minds of those who watch it, and they will be transported into the tale being told.
Why are visuals in storytelling important? Because the pictures are the living, breathing part of the story. Everything else is context. Without images, we would just have words. How can we possibly fathom Jesus as a "shepherd" without seeing the care and attention a shepherd gives to each member of his flock? How can we imagine a city on a hill without seeing the complexity and majesty of one atop a mountain? How can we tell about the love of Christ without showing love to others? Let’s not just tell people about the story of God. Let’s show them.