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Visual Language: The Art of Art Direction

What writers do with words, artists do with images. While previsualization is happening, the artists responsible for creating the overall visual language of a production are hard at work. The artists charged with this task are the art directors.

In addition to being excellent artists in their own right, art directors must be able to draw on and organize visual inspiration for the production from a variety of natural and man-made sources—nature, music, novels, other artists, architecture, the classic productions of stage and screen, and so on. They must have the capacity to create the overall visual framework of a production without denying the individual artists their free expression within the framework.

Finally, they must have the absolute ability to articulate the visual language to all the production team. The art director uses preproduction art and animation tests, among other tools, to develop and communicate the visual language required by the production.

This creates a bridge of communication among the members of a production crew. Think about three science fiction movies: Alien, Blade Runner, and Star Wars. Now think about their unique visual language, the color and lighting of the shots, the atmosphere and emotion created by the visual imagery. Each one of these movies created a visual language and set a standard by which all other films in the genre are judged.

Master and Apprentice

There is no substitute for learning from the work of others. Ask yourself the question: "Who are my artistic heroes?" Learning from the masters requires analytical research and a deliberate desire to copy and emulate their work. In times past, an apprentice painter would spend countless hours copying the works of the masters, learning the secrets of their techniques by endlessly doing what they did.

To learn the secrets of the masters, you must study the results of the efforts. A library of their work consisting of their books, magazine articles, movies, and so on creates an awareness of visual language and opens up the possibility of experimenting with your own personal visual style. Create a library of your artistic heroes and fill your office walls with their work. Become a virtual apprentice.

When you begin a project, spend a few hours of research and look for the visual language that embodies the soul of your scene. Draw on the natural and imaginary world around you and remember visual language is about atmosphere, color, lighting, stylistic details, and giving form to feeling.

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