How the “secret language” of filmmaking works

Adam Westbrook
7 min readMay 16, 2019
Image © Adam Westbrook

Thanks to YouTube, Netflix, and even Instagram, more of us are learning to convey our experiences visually. But what does it really mean to be a visual storyteller?

In our frenetic and visual world, where we are constantly assaulted with a high definition barrage of TV, Netflix, YouTube and cinema, it is hard to imagine how the first moving images, flickering raggedly at 12 frames per second on the wall of an 1888 workshop in Leeds in England, must have appeared to their inventor, Louis Augustin Le Prince.

“Roundhay Garden Scene” — the earliest known moving image scene, by Louis Augustin Le Prince in 1888.

We know moving images, despite their crude early form, had a magical quality for those who saw them. But like all media, it took people a long time to figure out what they were doing with it.

It wasn’t until 1903 that an American cameraman-turned-director, Edwin S. Porter, realised that you could tell a story by cutting together different - separately filmed - shots. The result, was The Great Train Robbery (1903) an early landmark in narrative cinema.

And 20 years after that, filmmakers and audiences alike were still grappling with this mysterious “seventh art”. What were its secrets? An unexpected voice in this debate was the writer Virginia Woolf who, in 1926, wondered in an essay about the fundamental elements of the moving image:

“If a shadow at a certain moment can suggest so much more than the actual gestures and words of men and women in a state of fear, it seems plain that the cinema has within its grasp innumerable symbols for emotions that have so far failed to find expression…Is there, we ask, some secret language which we feel and see, but never speak, and, if so, could this be made visible to the eye? Is there any characteristic which thought possesses that can be…

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Adam Westbrook

Video artist working at The New York Times. I write a weekly newsletter about visual storytelling and creativity. https://adamwestbrook.substack.com/