Nonverbal Communication Tells A Story

An understanding of nonverbal communication is essential to the success of most films. Great actors and actresses convey emotion and give the audience insights into their characters in many ways without saying a word. They express emotions that are believable and they do so effortlessly. The audience forgets they are real people playing a role in a movie. When the director calls for a close up of a romantic lead, the audience believes the characters are in love because of their facial expressions. Of all the ways we communicate nonverbally, facial expressions convey emotion most powerfully, but the character’s posture, gait, touch, gestures, and voice all have to fit what the characters are experiencing for the audience to believe them. They are not lying while acting; rather, they are creating what one of my professors at the University of Michigan called fictional truths. Their behaviors suggest age, gender, race, nationality, educational level, mental health, wealth, and so forth. If the nonverbal behaviors do not match who they are supposed to be, the fictional world dissolves.

Besides the talents the actors bring to the performance, many others on the set are concerned that we read the nonverbal cues in a consistent manner. The make-up artist helps make the actor or actress seem glamorous, rugged, shocked, frightening, older, exhausted, etc. The costume designer sends the right messages about the characters’ personalities by the clothes and accessories they wear. The set designer puts the characters in a setting that suits the dramatic needs of the story. It’s about more than making the set look historically accurate; it’s about making the environment conform to the messages the screenwriter or director wants to convey. For example, a romantic encounter in a wood-paneled room with a fire going is quite different from a romp in a sauna at a hotel. The cameraperson and cinematographer use lighting, lenses, shooting distances, and angles to shape the audience’s perceptions of what’s happening. A shot from below makes the character seem more powerful, for example, than a shot from above. The audience reads an enormous number of nonverbal cues without giving them much conscious thought, unless a cue or two contradicts the message being sent by other elements it sees and hears in the film. When that happens, the audience is jolted out of the fictional world as it questions whether something is believable. This kind of mixed message occurs in the real world as well. If we hear someone saying something that does not match the nonverbal signs, we tend to believe the nonverbal messages and question the truth of what’s being said.

I watched a bit of the original movie version of the Blue Lagoon on Sunday. I wondered whether it was the worst movie of all time. My conclusion was that it was not, but it was a contender. My problem was that the film was not believable. There was no narrator telling me what was happening, but the nonverbal cues were obvious. Too obvious. Everyone from screenwriter to the director Was heavy-handed. The premise of the film, with two children getting shipwrecked, living on a desert island, facing dangers, falling in love, and getting rescued, is not bad. But, everything that happens in this film is predictable in the worst sort of way. The nonverbal messages failed to create fictional truths. I doubt there was a hairstylist on the island, but it sure looked like both characters had their hair done each morning. Brooke Shields was the leading actress. Her character was so talented in this movie that she managed to put on make-up, cut her hair, and create jewelry. She looked like she was ready to be in one of her famous blue jeans commercials. Their clothes were pretty impressive. Island Chic, I guess. I wondered if the professor from Gilligan’s Island lived next door and invented all the tools they needed. The script lacked subtlety, so the actors/actresses had no opportunity to express subtle emotions. They were scared for a while, then they became angry, and later they discovered love. The movie looked like it was shot as a series of stills stitched together to tell us what they were feeling as they came of age. They were modeling in the scenes, not acting. The tree house they lived in looked more like a hotel than a homemade shack. Maybe the Skipper stopped by to teach these kids how to build their home and boat. The island was a paradise. Adam and Eve did not have it so good. Have you seen the TV show, Naked and Afraid? That show goes too far in my view, but I would expect the reality of two children living on an island by themselves to have some elements of Naked and Afraid to be more like Tarzan and the Lord of the Flies. But the kids lived in a dream world, even managing to figure out how to talk in a more sophisticated way as they grew up. How did they learn words they never heard before? The dramatic potential of this movie washed out to sea as soon the kids on their own. I know, you may be thinking, it’s a fantasy, so I’m supposed to suspend my disbelief. But, I prefer to suspend my disbelief at the beginning of the film, accepting the basic premises and going from there, not suspending my disbelief repeatedly each time the characters are given a new emotion to portray.

Great films make good use of the power of nonverbal communication. If you want to know how talented actors, actresses, cinematographers, directors, set designers and other in a movie are, I suggest you watch a film they created with the sound turned off. If the movie is good, you’ll probably be able to follow the story without any words or music. If the actors and actresses are great, you will know what they are feeling and can make pretty good guesses about what they are saying. You see, human beings are storytellers. We tell a large part of our story through nonverbal communication, so we can often understand other people’s stories without the words they use to explain them. We often do not notice that we are constructing these stories out of nonverbal elements until we encounter a story that generates contradictions. When we journey to the world of the Blue Lagoon, we realize that even paradise needs a consistent narrative to be something we can dream about.

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