How Art Made the World

episode 4

First Stories
In Stone
And Their Epics
Aboriginal Style


D. Attenborough
Power of Images and Sound
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More Human Than HumanThe Day Pictures Were BornThe Art of PersuasionOnce Upon a TimeTo Death and Back

The art of visual storytelling has a unique power over our imaginations — it captivates us.

Once Upon a Time

When we watch a good film, something extraordinary happens. We become so involved with what's going on that we feel we are living the story ourselves. Films enchant, terrify and inspire us, yet their visual storytelling techniques are not a modern phenomenon; in fact, they go back to the ancient past. But how did film really get its ability to transport us to other worlds? Where did the ingredients of visual storytelling come from?

The first story ever written is four thousand years old, and tells the tale of Gilgamesh, the legendary lion-killing king who is the world's first action hero. This story is unique in that it's the first narrative to exploit the universal human desire for a hero. But just having a hero in words is not enough. An ambitious King in Assyria wanted to capitalize on the heroic popularity of Gilgamesh, so he created the first complete visual story in stone relief - for people who could not read. The frieze not only had a hero, but it also had a story structure, a beginning, middle and end. Unfortunately, it was hard to get emotionally involved in the tale.

It took the Greeks to come up with a visual storytelling style that had psychologically credible characters

It took the Greeks to come up with a visual storytelling style that made you really care; that had psychologically credible characters. The Romans took storytelling one-step further; they combined the three elements of a strong heroic lead, a gripping storyline, and emotionally involving characters into a single visual narrative. Trajan's Column in Rome (see Storytelling Interactive) is perhaps the best example of this type of visual communication.

In the end, however, as impressive as the column may be, it's still missing something - it still lacks the power to captivate. But this missing piece can be found in the non-classical civilization of the Australian Aborigines, whose storytelling combines the visual, as well as music and singing. It is this soundtrack that provides the power for the Aboriginal story to have survived thousands of years, and which is so critical to the success of modern film's ability to transport us into other worlds.