.25 The Threshold of Awareness

It’s been weeks since I’ve written to you about visual storytelling - let’s fix that!

Last month, when I was in the depths of my previz process for an upcoming series (#21) I had a sudden flash of clarity.

I took out a pencil and some paper and drew a straight horizontal line:

Then above the line I wrote these words:

And then below the line I put these words:

The line in the middle I labelled the Threshold of Awareness.

I built it on a concept by a Disney animator called Francis Glebas. He says that when someone watches a film, there are things they are consciously processing and things they process subconsciously.

The audience is aware of everything above the line. It is where their attention is focused - if you are doing a good job.

Below the line, then, is everything the audience is not consciously aware of.

You might notice there is more down here than above the line. This is one of the things that makes visual stories so rich - there are multiple layers of meaning going on at once, many of which activate away from the logical reasoning parts of our brain.

We read things that almost cannot be put into words.

Here’s a simple way to think of it: everything above the line tells you what to think; everything below the line tells you how to feel about it.

Here are two practical lessons I have taken away from understanding the Threshold of Awareness:

  1. Not everything needs to be above the line. In nonfiction especially, there is an urge to communicate every fact, every detail in the text. So many documentaries, explainers and video essays (particularly online) have dense scripts and shallow visualisation. You can watch them with your eyes closed and still understand everything.

  2. Don’t move anything that is below the line above it. If the audience becomes aware of anything below the line, the illusion is shattered. But more importantly, if you move anything from the subtext into the text, you are telling the audience how to feel instead of using the medium to communicate this to them subconsciously.

Applying this distinction to my big project has (I hope) given them a layer of nuance and emotion that wasn’t there before. We’ll find out soon enough!

Until next Sunday,