Importance of Visual Literacy – An Approach by Martin Scorsese


Images have the power to make an impact on our minds and change us socially, culturally, and psychologically. But these images/visuals are powerless if we are not able to perceive them properly.  The ability to recognize and understand ideas conveyed through visible actions or images is called Visual Literacy.

Martin Scorsese has always advocated the importance of Visual Literacy and the same can be traced in his said lines.

“Young people need to understand that not all images are there to be consumed like fast food and then forgotten – we need to educate them to understand the difference between moving images that engage their humanity and their intelligence, and moving images that are just selling them something.”

Understanding the concept of visual literacy will help us to understand the historical, technical, and cultural significance of the film language (of which a prominent part is visuals). In an essay, penned by Martin Scorsese, he commends that visual literacy is not only crucial to make better movies, but also an important attribute to experience the complex design of a cinematic story, and thus be able to fully appreciate the auteurs who have managed to become masters of a widely foreign, albeit universal tongue.

As an audience, the ability to read a film is an aptitude which most of us lack, thus Scorsese in his essay urges and underlines how film language is important historically, technically, and socially. He also puts an emphasis on “training the eye” and “heart” of the viewer so that they question and point out everything that is served to them visually, packed in a story. It will create a mature student of Cinema who is exposed to the most powerful visual weapon of modern culture – Films.

A brief analysis of Martin Scorsese views on Visual Literacy has been done below.

Discovery of Film Language

The beginning of Cinematic Language started with the very first cut. It was the inception of a universal language that would later incorporate the constant flow of sound and words, thus developing it as a rich and profound language. In the history of cinema, Edwin S. Porter used the first cut on his film, The Great Train Robbery, that was made in 1903. It marks the inception of film cutting and the language that seeds out of his invention. During the first few minutes of the film, there is a shot of the robbers bursting into the train depot office. A train pulling in can be observed in the background and then in the next shot, we’re outside with the robbers as the train comes to a stop near them. 

Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery

What Edwin tried to achieve through the cut, is to make an impact upon the audience that the train in the first shot and in the second, was the one, and a cut really doesn’t break a continuous action. This is how a film cut, peeped in our consciousness, and became an integral part of Film Language.

Later in the history of filmmaking, many filmmakers carried forward the pursuit that helped them to develop a language for the film. D.W. Griffith, also known as the father of Cinema, managed to weave together 4 separate story-lines by cross-cutting scenes from different times and places in Intolerance. Sergei Eisenstein forwarded the idea of the “montage” most famously in Battleship Potemkin and his first feature Strike. 

Importance of Visual Literacy - importance of film language
Battleship Potemkin

Maintaining shot Continuity, editing, including the close-up, the use of color, parallel editing, camera movement — all of these things and more began to speak to audiences and filmmakers in new and exciting ways.

Technical Evolution of Film Language

The techniques used in film-making began to solidify and become standard with time. The old way of film making — one take or multiple long takes filmed in a wide shot — began to evolve into much more complex visual narratives. Through this evolution, the films could now cover hours, days, years out of a character’s story thanks to continuity editing. The shot-reverse-shot editing allowed for the use of close-ups and different camera angles.

Shot Compositions, thus, started to speak directly to audiences in different ways, giving the frame itself life and language of its own. Being able to read and speak the language of film as a filmmaker is a skill that must obviously be mastered. Everything on-screen — the lighting, the shadows, the size of the shot, the angle, the composition, the blocking, the colors, everything — is a word spoken to your audience.

For example, the shot from Vertigo employs the “Vertigo Effect”. Irmin Roberts, the Second-unit cameraman of Vertigo, invented this “zoom out and track in” technique, known as the “contra-zoom” or “trombone shot”.  He coined a new word in the language of film making that means “dizziness”, “fear”, “terrifying realization”, etc.

Vertigo Effect

Social Acceptance of Film Language

Marcel Proust, a well-known novelist quotes

“The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

These lines appeal to us to look at the same landscape, human ironies and visuals through a different lens. The physical make-up of these visuals might not change completely but the way we look or perceive them can be altered frequently. It can be achieved through a different arrangement of shot sequence or capturing the moving images through different angles, in such a way that the same visuals symbolize different meaning. This approach has been defined as the Kuleshov effect in Filmmaking.

Generally, the films of the early 1900s were all about showing something exciting and different: cats boxing, a woman dancing, a train arriving. These visuals were developed by the filmmakers who began to see things in a new light and through constant screening of their films, the audience began to understand the language their films were speaking.

Today, both the filmmakers and audience are visually literate inherently but not many of us realize this consciously. It can be summed up by the way we allow the spectacle to overtake us — we get wrapped up in the story, the visuals, and the music. We feel the twitch of melancholy as someone on-screen breaks up or fright between two close friends erupts. We might fail to realize this or consciously identify but a lot of the drama that leads to that climax was created using visual queues.

Importance of Film Language

Audiences in the yesteryear took visual communication for granted until the film critics that eventually ushered in the French New Wave, like François Truffaut, as well as American critic Andrew Sarris took a closer look at the film making of Alfred Hitchcock.

Importance of Visual Literacy
Alfred Hitchcock

Martin Scorsese who is an ardent fan of cinema often recommends films that disappeared in history to give them the viewership they deserve. Hitchcock’s films like Vertigo kind of disappeared into the heap of movies that came out that year. It wasn’t a failure by any means, but it wasn’t the overwhelming success we today would expect it to have been.

Today, among Cinephiles the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock is considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Little did people know about his endeavor until a group of film critics like Truffaut and Sarris start writing about his work in Film Magazine, Cahiers du Cinema.

These critics decoded Hitchcock’s film language and conveyed to the audience that it has a more prominent meaning rather than just entertainment value to it. Thus, a new film language emerged from there on.

They realized that Hitchcock had his own “Visual Language”, which helped develop his auteur theory. Without visual literacy, we wouldn’t be able to make a distinction between auteurs and will see all visuals in same light. The genius and skill of history’s greatest filmmakers will potentially be lost in the content jungle, for a new age of audience that doesn’t know how to read these extraordinary visuals.

Importance of Visual Literacy
Psycho (1960) dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Understanding visual literacy is not only the expertise required for filmmakers, but all who experience films, because films are such a huge part of our lives. Scorsese says:

“Whenever I hear people dismiss movies as fantasy and make a hard distinction between film and life, I think to myself that it’s just a way of avoiding the power of cinema. Of course it’s not life—it’s the invocation of life, it’s in an ongoing dialogue with life.”

Martin Scorsese comments that today films are more often judged on their monetary collections rather than on the artfulness of their execution.

“We can’t afford to let ourselves be guided by contemporary cultural standards — particularly now. There was a time when the average person wasn’t even aware of box office grosses. But since the 1980s, it’s become a kind of sport — and really, a form of judgment. It culturally trivializes film. And for young people today, that’s what they know. Who made the most money? Who was the most popular?”

These ideologies demand a change in perspective on how we watch films and it can only be brought by one viewer at a time. It starts with cinephiles like you and me, and slowly the crowd of viewers will follow. I definitely recommend watching this interview where Martin Scorsese talks about the Importance of Film Language.

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Shikhar Agrawal
Shikhar Agrawal
I am an Onstage Dramatist and a Screenwriter. I have been working in the Indian Film Industry for the past 12 years, writing dialogues for various films and television shows.

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