How Much Detail is Enough?
- The most common advice I offer to your classmates for rewriting their Visual Analysis posts is to add more detail.
- The most common advice I offer after that is to concentrate on the Rhetoric half of the Visual/Rhetoric assignment.
- Posts should provide enough detail so that the reader not only visualizes the basics of the setting and the action but can also understand how the details impose interpretations on the viewers.
- Posts should include what you, the author, believe to be the interpretation the editor of the video wants to impose on us.
Help me find some videos, please?
Here you can scroll through hundreds of Ad Council videos. Be careful. You want one that runs 30 seconds!
The Visual and the Analysis are Inseparable
As you describe the visuals in depth, use your rhetorical skills to encourage an interpretation in the minds of your readers. They are putty in your hands since they depend on you for both your report on the images—their speed and sequence, the mood they cast—and your analysis of what the images mean.
Spend a short paragraph after the time-stamped material to draw any overall conclusions you can after considering the impact of the entire 30-second spot. You may discuss its particular effectiveness or its shortcomings as visual argument.
You may also (following your visual analysis) report on any dialog or soundtrack elements that influence your reactions to the argument when you combine the audio with the video.
When the video begins, we see three former presidents on screen standing outdoors in cold weather. They’re all facing forward, bareheaded, and dressed in suits, ties, and black overcoats, with their hands in their pockets. The two Democrats, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, are positioned left and right on the screen; George W Bush is in the center, standing a few feet behind the others. Oddly, they all have their hands in their pockets, perhaps because of the cold.
The outdoor setting is very dramatic and theatrical. There is no roof to the structure, which resembles an open-air theatre or church under a bright blue sky full of white clouds. White stone benches without backs are set in rows like church pews. At the front of the church/theater is a raised altar/stage backed by a cove topped with a half-dome. Stone pillars reminiscent of the Capitol and the White House extend both left and right from the altar, and between the pillars are hung American flags, so the backdrop sends messages of government, theater, and faith.
Both Bush and Obama are wearing what we assume are American flag lapel pins. Clinton probably is too, but his black scarf obscures it if he is. Outdoor gatherings of former presidents are rare and historic. They don’t happen by accident, so this was probably shot during the January presidential inauguration, which all three are known to have attended. If that’s true, then it’s no accident they’re standing at least 6 feet apart and were filmed outdoors; they’re practicing responsible social distancing.
Presidents of the two major parties indicate bi-partisanship. Whatever they have to tell us transcends differences between Republicans and Democrats. Still, there has to be some political content to the message. 3 presidents!
The image is compelling and demands at least temporary attention. It’s artfully staged, so it’s well-planned and choreographed. Whatever your affiliation, you’ll give this video at least a few seconds of your time.
Obama is half-smiling and seems comfortable looking into the camera. Clinton is not exactly making eye contact with us and looks, if anything, tired. We’re watching without sound, but we can tell from his lips and his swaying on his feet that Bush is making some remarks directly to us.
(Oddly, someone walks by in the background between Clinton and Bush, stealing focus from the primary scene, so apparently the director was not given absolute authority to clear the space. She may also have wished for another “take” that would not include the passerby, but it’s not easy to keep three presidents on the set for long.)
He probably should have stood more still during his opening remarks. When Bush sways, he looks a little goofy and undermines what, we imagine, will be a serious message.
Example 1 (Feedback to Student Draft)
Watch the video below, then read a first draft of a Visual Analysis together with commentary from your professor asking for MORE!
The back of a little boy can be seen looking at a fence or even opening it. The boy is probably a young elementary student because of the book bag on his back. On the left of the frame, there is part of a white house. Could it be a school?
Professor Reaction: 01. So far so good, except: positive impression or negative impression? The barely perceptible environment seems comfortable or dangerous? The boy is well-dressed or raggedy? Clean or unkempt? The setting is urban, suburban, rural? Street lights? Utility poles? Passing cars? I do not mean to say that you can draw firm conclusions on these matters, but in a 30-second spot, the directors are EXTREMELY careful to load only the appropriate emotional impressions into every frame. So, take your best guess.
Overall note for the next 29 seconds. I may or may not make suggestions like those I have just made. From here out, the job of generating those questions is yours. If I help once or twice, I do not mean to indicate that if I say nothing, there is nothing more to say. In other words, when in doubt, do more than I say.
The boy walked into the building. He seems to close the door comfortably because he body does not shift backwards to shut the door.
Professor Reaction: 02. You did not mention the gate at all. Does it look like a gate outside a school? Did he have to unlock it? Unlatch it? Was it designed to keep him out? You’re trying to decide if the white building is a school or a house. Did the gate help?
See what I mean? Analyze your reactions to everything. All the elements are claims in an argument. We don’t know what we’re being persuaded of yet, but the rhetoric of every frame is persuasive of something.
03. What’s with that weird body turn on entering? Is he greeting someone to his left through the passageway?
04. What about the handprints and all the markers and pens on the counter? The kitchen looks like a home, but there’s all that stuff that echoes school. Did you notice it’s 3:35 by the kitchen clock? Gotta be a clue. [No more of these. Work out the rest of them yourself. You might need to creep along a frame at a time to be sure you’re seeing all that your eyes see in real time but that your brain barely registers.]
The boy puts his book bag on the floor in what it seems like the kitchen. The kitchen looks rather empty but clean. His body languages tells us that he’s pretty comfortable because he heads straight for the fridge like it was a routine. The drawing on the refrigerator probably belongs to the young boy.
Professor Reaction: 05. Nice work. I like the “routine” comment.
When the boy opens the refrigerator, there is little food the fridge. There are a couple of sauces and something in two containers.
Professor Reaction: 07. Say more about the containers.
We can see the boy through the crack of the open fridge. He is looking down like he’s trying to find food; however, he does not look surprised. It seems like the lack of food or his routine is nothing new to him.
Professor Reaction: 09. Nice.
We can now see the whole entire fridge and it’s basically empty. The boy is looking up to see if there is any food on the top shelf of the fridge. There is a drawing on the refrigerator, but there is no male figure in it. Does he not have a father?
Professor Reaction: 11. A bit about the fridge, please. Is this a neglectful home? Are we looking at poverty here? Good catch on the family drawing; just brilliant.
12. Relevance of the hearts in the refrigerator artwork? The blue-bordered certificate? Relevance of his having to climb on a chair to reach the upper cabinets? Does someone tall want to deny him easy access?
0:13 The boy gets to the shelf above the counter and he opens it. When the boy opens the cabinet, he finds spices. There are some canned food but not that many. The shelf has some open spots where food might used to be.
13. Deliberately almost nothing is recognizable, right? Relish probably. Salad dressing? So why is the SMEAT label turned our way? (Could it possibly mean “It’s Meat”?) Found it.
The boy can be seen looking up on the shelf. He looks like he’s thinking about something. The boy looks rather sad and disappointed that he couldn’t find what he was looking for.
Professor Reaction: 15. I agree the boy is probably sad. Would we say the same thing about his expression if we saw it in a different context? Or does its placement here at this moment convince us to read disappointment into his face?
The boy looks like he’s walking away from the kitchen. On the way out he spares a glance at the refrigerator one last time.
Professor Reaction: 18. Significance of his walking into view from the far side of the sink? Where did his bookbag go? It was on the floor. Picture of a smiling moose? WTH?
The scene changes to a woman. On the side of the screen there is a logo that says “Feeding America.”
Professor Reaction: 21. Do you not know this woman? The use of an onscreen celebrity spokesperson is a significant bit of visual rhetoric you can’t ignore. You don’t mention that she’s talking. Does she appear to have a happy message to share? Something crucial? Does she seem hopeful? Determined? Is she asking for money? You should be able to judge much from the visual alone.
The logo Feeding America is now centered in the video implying its importance.
While listening to the video with audio, it made a big difference. Yes I could imply that the video was about a boy who was looking for something to eat (like a snack) when there was no audio. However, when I listened to it with audio it made a greater impact. A young boy goes home wanting to eat, but there is no food in his household. In the end, the lady told us a statistic about how 1 in 5 families struggle with hunger in America. If there wasn’t any audio throughout the clip, I would not know it was about hunger until the very end when it says “Feeding America.”
Try to watch JUST FIRST TWO SECONDS of the following video and then the commentary below.
Dog lying on some sort of table. Looks injured. In the background is a faded bloody bandage over one of the legs. It could be animal abuse or some type of accident.
Professor Reaction: The dull sheen of the table indicates it is steel or perhaps another industrial surface.
It is clean, suggesting the dog is indoors.
The light overhead and the soft shadow the dog casts on the tabletop indicate further that the scene is an interior, as does the “fixture-type” lighting in the background.
The bloody bandage is not surgical gauze; rather, it looks like a knotted dish towel with a frayed edge, so most likely it was applied in a home by a homeowner, not by a veterinarian.
This suggests that the dog has not yet received medical attention.
Perhaps a recent wound or surgery has opened and the dog’s owner tried to stem the flow?
Or maybe the dog received a new injury at or near home and an owner used a temporary bandage to help it until professional help could be found?
Professor Reaction: The camera slowly moves in on the dog’s face and eyes, which blink and then open wide.
Whatever else may be going on in the video, we are being asked to carefully consider and attend to this suffering animal.
Almost as if we were bringing our own faces closer to his, we move in to comfort him.
His eyes roll up a bit to indicate that he is aware of our closeness, signalling further that he is conscious and alert enough to take note of his surroundings.
He is a character in a drama, not a prop.
The first second of video.
Professor’s Model Analysis
0:01. The ad starts very abruptly in the middle of a scene. What’s more, in the first second, the camera is zooming quickly back so that we have to adjust immediately to a barrage of information. The suggestion the filmmakers are making is that the footage was captured by an amateur camera operator, either for home video or maybe a low-budget documentary. Either way, we are given the impression that the footage is “real,” not staged by a director with hired actors.
The image quality too is low. It’s color photography, but the color is so washed-out we get the further impression of a low-budget production. It’s almost black-and-white.
We are behind the counter of a diner. We can tell this from the “marble” countertop before us and the ketchup bottles and napkin holders on the shelf below it. Attached to the countertop is a familiar menu-holder empty of menus. Even closer to the camera (which suggests the footage was taken from the kitchen, through the service window) is a red-top bottle of Angustora bitters. Another can be seen on the counter where customers could access it, alongside the ketchup bottle and the sugar server. The only common use for bitters is as a cocktail flavor. The implication is that this is a diner where drinks are served; therefore, we have at least the implication that some diners might be drinking.
Facing us at the counter are two young boys (one black, one white) dressed in similar sport jerseys. They are probably teammates. Next to the white boy is a crew-cut man in his 30s with longish sideburns. If he were heavier, he would resemble Kevin James from “King of Queens.” The implication is that he is a robust, perhaps a bit rough-edged, working-class guy here with his team, perhaps their coach, maybe father to one of the kids. He wears a lanyard around his neck; perhaps a whistle hangs from it, and a warmup jacket: coachwear.
On the counter between him and the white boy is a fielder’s glove. They are a baseball team. The kid is not a catcher.
Behind the three at the counter, a man and a woman occupy opposite sides of a booth. They are engaged in conversation. The man resembles Joe Pesci from “Goodfellas,” advancing the impression that we’re in a working-class diner. The bowling pin behind him, part of the decor of the place, further confirms this. The lone framed artwork decorating the space is a black-and-white photo of an urban street scene. Coffee cups are stacked upside-down in the service area behind the woman, whose hand motion before her face indicates she is the one doing the talking.
They have been served. The man is pointing at something large on the white boy’s plate. In fact, he points at it repeatedly and says something about it to the boy. Most likely he is picking up the tab. Maybe he doesn’t want that big dish wasted.
From a filmmaker’s point of view, the composition of the figures is very important. The characters are arranged in a line. Black boy at counter, Man in Booth facing woman in booth, White Boy at counter, Woman in Booth facing man in booth, Coach gesturing with his hand toward White Boy’s plate. His active hand gesture draws our attention. When he stops moving, the woman starts moving her hand in the very same space, keeping our attention on that spot, but shifting our focus to the conversation she’s having with the Man in the Booth. In one second, we have information about two different conversations. Both are clearly important.
End of the first second.
An in-depth analysis of the first two seconds of a visual argument:
0:00–0:02 It is nighttime in a deep pine woods. A late-model pickup truck, shiny and well-maintained, is pulling a good-looking boat along a paved road. We can tell the road is asphalt by the obvious and telltale crack patterns in the road surface. On the other hand, the far side of the road, is so covered with pine needles that if we didn’t know better, we’d think the truck was about to travel down an uncleared dirt path.
The condition of the truck and boat indicate the prosperity of the driver. The vehicle is being operated at a reasonable speed for the conditions. We have no reason to think the driver is being irresponsible. On the other hand, a very noticeable spray of sparks is coming from somewhere under the rear wheels of the truck. It origin is out of view, but the sparks are being thrown in the direction of the boat. The effect is dramatic, like a 4th of July sparkler behind the truck. Something is clearly wrong. The light given off is enough to illuminate the underside of the bow of the boat. This could be seen by the driver if he’s looking.
We notice that the driver’s window is open. The driver’s arm is resting on the windowsill. He turns (we guess he’s male by the billed khaki cap he’s wearing) in the direction of the sparks, twice in quick succession. It’s possible he’s heard a sound (we’re not listening so we don’t know), or that he’s noticed the glow under the boat in his rearview mirror. Following his second look back, he removes his hand from the steering wheel and, we conclude, puts the truck in park. He has pulled to a stop.
The place looks very remote. We’ve seen no evidence of other vehicles in the “setup” to this scene. If he’s having a serious mechanical problem, he might be here awhile waiting for help. On the other hand, the sparks stopped as soon as the truck stopped moving. So maybe the trouble is related to forward motion. Problems like these have doomed countless movie characters to mayhem at the hands of psychotic inbred cannibals. He should be a little worried.
The video for this example is (permanently or temporarily) unavailable at YouTube. The analysis may be useful, but frustrating since we can’t read it along with the visuals. —DSH
0:00 – Ad starts with a shot of the lower half of a man on a rocking horse in the park on a sunny day.
Professor Reaction: That’s a reasonable description, MyStudent, but not an analysis. How do we react to such an image? It’s a big jarring at first since the horsies are almost exclusively ridden by children, are in fact difficult for adults to mount. Do we register anything? Confusion? Disbelief? Curiosity? Do we think the rider might be unhinged? Bored beyond belief?
The only UN-acceptable answer is that we register nothing at all—that we simply withhold judgment until more evidence helps us correctly judge the situation. We do not. We jump to conclusions and later alter them if necessary.
0:00-0:04 – The camera moves up to show the man bouncing and rocking back and forth with a huge smile on his face. The man, who appears to be of Hispanic decent, is wearing a navy blue sweat jacket, a grey t-shirt, khaki shorts, white socks, and black sneakers.
Professor Reaction: Well, yes, but in addition, he changes his motion from an innocent back-and-forth rocking to a slightly demented humping-the-horse motion that, depending on who he’s smiling at, could mean a couple of things.
What are we to make of that smile? Is he simply enjoying himself, or getting someone’s attention? Does the smile say “Look at me!” or “Come join me” or “Aren’t we having fun”?
What do the clothes suggest? Is he well-off? Working today and on his lunch break? Enjoying the park on a day off? Is the patch on his sleeve significant? Where’s the park? Inner-city? Suburbs?
0:04-0:05 – The camera moves to a white woman who is sitting on the park bench with a baby stroller. She looks at him and smirks but then diverts her attention back to the stroller.
Professor Reaction: She does indeed. Why? Tell us about her. Does she know him? Does his childish horse-humping amuse her? She doesn’t merely “divert her attention” to the stroller, does she? She pulls it closer in a protective gesture. Is the strange man threatening?
0:05-0:08 – A white man, in a green jacket, makes a weird face and presses it against the glass while looking to the right. When it hits 0:08 seconds, the man removes his face from the glass and has a blank expression.
Professor Reaction: What glass? Is there glass in the playground, or is this a new scene? What is the significance of his “looking to the right?” Can we tell what or who he’s looking at? He fixes his gaze first on something below and to his left. Then presses his nose against the glass (through which he can be seen, presumably, standing as he is at the service window of a hot dog counter). Then checks to see what reaction he’s getting from someone. Then wipes his expression. It’s a game, right, in which he pretends he hasn’t done anything gross like wipe his nostrils on the window?
What can we conclude from his age, size, clothing, grooming? Is it too early to notice a pattern in just two examples? Middle-aged men in casual clothes in the middle of the day acting foolishly?
A figure passes behind him during his act, indicating (like the female observer in the park) that he’s acting out in public knowing he can be observed by adults.
0:08-0:10 – An African American man looks up at the white man with a puzzled face as if wondering what just occurred.
Professor Reaction: Where is that AA man? On the other side of the glass? Has he seen the goofy face pressed against the glass? His gaze is at first fixed lower (at a cash register or computer?). Then he looks up. Is he making eye contact with the face-presser? In two seconds, how many shades of curiosity, suspicion, disfavor does he register? He blinks. Does that suggest disbelief? A shaking off of the first image and a chance to look at it again?
What do you make of the odd coincidence that all three men so far have sported facial hair?
0:10-0:12 – Camera is angled upwards where you see the tops of the trees and the sky. An African American man, in a white short sleeved button-down, tan trousers, and a blue with whit polka-dotted tie, is bouncing up and down while smiling and waving to something/someone.
Professor Reaction: You have yet to conclude that three men now are behaving childishly. If you’re trying to be matter-of-fact and strictly objective for some reason, MyStudent, you should stop that. We judge at all times when watching little movies like these 30-second spots. Your job is to analyze how you’re being manipulated to draw conclusions from what you’re being shown. If you don’t share your impressions, you’re not analyzing, merely reporting.
0:12-0:15 – The shot shows the back of a neighbor’s head as she looks over the fence at the man. He continues to jump in circles while smiling and then he does a ballet spin with his hands above his head.
Professor Reaction: Once again, the waving indicates that the man knows he’s being observed (so the other cast members are not accidental.) The woman in the park, man behind the glass, and neighbor are all essential to make the men’s actions Public Acts.
0:15-0:21 – The camera goes to a little white girl, wearing a pink jacket and glasses, laughing at the man making faces pressed up to the glass. The white man then sticks his tongue out, puts his hands up to his head (as if making moose antlers), and wiggles side to side. The little girl (assumably his daughter) then proceeded to put her thumb up to her nose and wiggle her fingers at him. The African American man then looks at them both and smiles at them. The white man smiles back at him and then continues to make another weird face at the little girl.
Professor Reaction: From which we conclude what? That his intended audience was the girl, but that he was willing to appear idiotic in front of another adult for the sake of amusing her?
0:21-0:24- The camera shows the African American man jumping on a trampoline with his son. The little boy is wearing a brown, white, and green stripped short sleeved shirt with jeans. The pair are both smiling and jumping over one another.
Professor Reaction: From which we conclude what? That his actions were intended to amuse the boy, but that he was willing to appear idiotic by striking ballerina poses in mid-air in front of his neighbors for the sake of amusing the child?
0:24-0:27- The shot shows a little Hispanic boy smiling and bouncing on a rocking horse. The camera then pans over to the father doing the exact same thing int the rocking horse in front of him.
Professor Reaction: From which we conclude what? That we were wrong to assume in the first take that the Hispanic man was trying to get the attention of the woman with the stroller? His attention was always focused on the boy in front of him, and his glee was joy shared with a child, most likely his child?
0:27-0:31- The camera shows the neighbor looking over the fence at the African American man bouncing on the trampoline.
Professor Reaction: From which we conclude what?
END OF FEEDBACK