Communication in Popular Media

 

The Star Wars series is famous for a number of things. One of them is the scroll of text that opens every movie. It tells the viewer the story so far, events that have happened off-screen, and sets the tone for the movie. While apparently a very successful method, just stating events isn’t always the best way to tell a story, or give a moral lesson, and artists know that. Real life is filled with examples of effective communication, but it is in art and advertisement that we see the various ways to convey the same idea, and this essay is an effort to analyze the theory behind it. No part of this essay claims to be sufficiently well defended and is, at best, a theory.

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In common parlance, the word “communication” is used as a synonym for transferring information. The information itself is varied – it could mean factual data, ideas, or emotions. When effectively used, the core sentiment or thought conveyed forms a distinct impression in the mind of the recipient which equals the intent of (the) content communicated. Thus, in a conversation or otherwise, effective communication manifests itself in clear, unambiguous transfer of information – usually through direct instructions, statements, or questions, with only as much circumlocution as absolutely necessary. Since effective use of communication as a tool encompasses not only the transmission of data but also the intended psychological impact on the receiving party, the delivery of the information, the medium of deliverance, and the context surrounding this delivery are all equally important to the process.

The first obvious application of this beyond the real world (where it is used in conversations, verbal or otherwise), is as a literary device. Be it in literature, art, cinema, video games, or music, communication is absolutely essential for effective storytelling. Since a major function of various artforms is to convey a specific emotion or range thereof, and considering their varied formats, mass media as an entity turns out to be the perfect canvas to portray the scope and extent of effective communication as a whole. Literature itself is primarily a text-only medium, comics use both text and art, Cinema utilises a combination of visuals and sound, while music focuses solely on sound. ‘Art’ is a bit hard to classify. While there are conflicts between these formats and occasional crossovers (like music videos and video games), the core of each is essentially the same – which is why, combined, it all makes for a presentation on the variety and lengths effective communication can be taken to. The “golden rule” to judge how effective it is is to see that it conveys something of purpose, in a manner effective enough to make the consumer feel the need for that something – which could be a story, a general emotion, a protest – it doesn’t really matter, as long as the consumer sees the need for it to be expressed.

In prose and poetry, storytelling is limited to text. While illustrations and other graphical methods are often used, for the majority of the time, the body of text is condemned to stand on its own. Alone, it has to comply with the golden rule, and both prose and poetry have found their own ways to do so. For instance, one could argue that the fundamental trick used by the former is that of perspective. A story changes depending on the person from whose perspective it is told. A first person narrative is very personal, and heavily biased in favour of the narrator. A third person story gives a more passive and neutral outlook; and one that follows the protagonist’s chain of thought and actions in third person tells a tale slightly more active than the passive nature of pure external narration. It doesn’t stop there – an author can choose to describe whatever is necessary for a scene, delve into the minds of characters for the readers’ benefit, and give their own views through whichever means they wish to. The choice of narration style, the pacing of the story, the narrative beats – it is all upto the creator, and has a marked effect on how the final product is received. If it all coalesces into a single, clear picture, identical or similar to how the author envisioned it, then it may be considered as an example of effective communication. Poetry is similar, yet different. Because of its formal structure, entire interpretations may be made based simply on the structure chosen. We have sonnets, limericks, haikus, ballads, epics,and the like – each form used to tell a different tale. Modifications to structure can be used to disorient; to introduce a sense of unfamiliarity. Rhythm and rhyme schemes are combined with grammatical devices such as alliteration, comparisons, irony, and so on and so forth – all of it is used to subliminally invoke the intended emotion(s). In addition to this poetry can share the same narrative devices used in prose: starting from perspective right upto the pacing and narrative style, so the communicative scope of poetry is absolutely massive, notwithstanding the constraints of its form.

When changing the medium of expression to art, different principal techniques are used to convey the same result. Point of view, art style, and detailing are still essential, but other methods more suited to a visual canvas are applied more often. Art doesn’t always tell a story – but when it does, every creative tool in existence can be used to accompany it. Negative space, framing, depth of detail, symmetry – a large number of techniques are brought into the fray to make up for the loss of explicit words describing everything important in a scene. Note, however, that a piece may use text as an accompaniment, which is why I’ll be using a comic strip to showcase what I just said. Oh, and to those of you questioning the inclusion of comics in such a hallowed field as art, I present to you this:

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While the comic proves my point pertaining to art, it’s not what I want to showcase as an example of effective communication in art right now. A better example that communicates everything necessary using the various other techniques available to the artist would be this one:

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This work of art exists for comedy; its primary purpose is to entertain. Yet, notice the way it is presented in order to attain its objective. From four panels the reader gets to know that the duo tried to go to sleep in a generally isolated locality, were unsuccessful, considered the possibility of the supernatural, and spent the rest of the night outside their tent, terrified. It opens at bedtime in a tent – it’s dark, and relatively isolated. There’s a pause – a panel with only the background and no speech bubbles – followed by the next panel where somebody asks if the other believes in ghosts. Both boxes together create the next part of the narrative, indicating the passage of time to boot. It serves to show that the question is raised after a while of inactivity, and not immediately afterwards as many might have drawn it. The penultimate panel sets up the punchline, and the next one delivers it in the form of a sudden change of lighting and the duo’s terrified, sleep-deprived expressions; and it is the absurdity of it all that induces laughter. Calvin and Hobbes have a comic on that too, but I digress.

As a field relying on both visuals and sound to convey a tale, cinema provides us with yet another avenue to observe the varied perceptions of communication as we know it. A golden rule in movies is “show, don’t tell”, and much is done to achieve that. Innovative directors who utilise the entire spectrum of sound and picture made available to them can tell much more in far less time when compared to others who aren’t of the same calibre. By a combination of camera movement, framing, aspect ratio choices, musical score, and general sound design, a scene can add up to more than just the sum of its parts when used correctly, which almost invariably furthers the plot just that bit further than usual. In fact, even text alone can be just as, if not more, effective – as evidenced by the iconic scrolls that open before every Star Wars movie till date (for reference, Rogue One is still two months out). Good screenwriting and direction cuts down on ham-fisted dialogue. Visual cues such as aspect ratio changes and set design can be applied to immerse the viewer and indicate a variety of locations and time periods without unnecessary title cards. Through camera movement one gets a sense of the style of narration, and even the pacing of the story. The score is often used as an indicator – for instance, the theme in Jaws before every attack. Sound design as a whole, along with every other component of film production amalgamate to give rise to an experience identical or very similar to its creator’s vision. Take for instance, The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s fantastical, whimsical, and tells a tale that wouldn’t have worked any other way. Director Wes Anderson ensures that all of this is conveyed, not through dialogue alone, but in every frame in the form of camera movement, movement in general, sound, music, dialogue, and so on and so forth; and even if some scenes do not make sense without context, they’re beautiful in their own right. Besides, even these often tell a tale more effectively than many feature-length movies. Take the picture below, for instance. It tells us three things. One: It is set in a fancy building some time in the past. Two: the scene is slightly unsettling due to the near perfect symmetry, as it is meant to be. Three: it depicts a Mexican standoff with at least six participants in a very expensive building.

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“Most of the time, communication gets confused with conversation. In fact, the two are distinctly different… It is very important to realise that communication is a two-party affair which aims at passing on or receiving a specific piece of information.” Dr Kalam’s views on the topic hold true, not only for the conversations he was referring to, but also to the vast and varied field of entertainment and art; and their creators know this. Every new movie, every book, every video game is an implementation of this theory, whether conscious or otherwise. It is why, after so many years of retelling the same story, they hold their significance. It is why the entirety of Star Wars isn’t a long body of text scrolling across the screen.

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