Visual Design Principles in Classic Film

Scribology at the Movies

Scribology at the Movies

TruScribe’s visual design principles of Scribology (our made-up word), derived through psychological and neuroscientific research, inform our choices on a daily basis.  They help us create content that satisfies our clients. And they let us make informed recommendations to each other and our clients.

Wondering how these guidelines hold up when taken off the whiteboard?  Take a look at Scribology at the Movies.

Let’s uncover Scribology’s visual design principles at work in Jaws – one of history’s greatest films.

1975: Steven Spielberg debuts Jaws, the world’s first blockbuster. The near-flawless adventure film contains dozens of thrills and brilliant moments. 

Example 1

Let’s start with an early example of Scribology’s principles in action: the moment when Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary) realizes that her husband isn’t being overprotective of their sons after all.

The scene opens with protagonist Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) skimming a book on sharks, disturbed by the images he sees.

His wife Ellen enters and encourages him to put down the book.

She settles into his arms and they drink together for a moment, until she reveals that one of their boys is playing with his birthday present: a boat, in the water.

Martin rushes to the porch and demands that his son get out of the boat. 

Ellen chides Martin for his tone, and then looks in the shark book she took from him.

Seeing a drawing of a shark attacking a boat, she screams at her son to listen to his father.

Now, the Scribology breakdown, split over the three beats of the scene: 

Part 1: Skimming the book

  • Message: Martin can’t get his fear of sharks under control.
  • Image density: Every time Martin turns the page, we see more drawings and photos.  This keeps our eyes glued to the screen, lest we miss what he’s seeing. 
  • Surprise: Wondering about the next picture creates engagement-driving bursts of dopamine.
  • Framing: We’re close on Martin’s face and on the book itself.  This keeps our perspective intimate and locked with his.
  • Hand-Drawn/Human Forms: The brain loves human faces, and close-ups of Martin’s face hone our focus every time.  His expression communicates his mental state: “Yikes.”
  • Visuals: The book’s shark imagery perfectly fits the message, Martin’s fears, and the viewer’s desire to see more of this elusive threat.  

Part 2: Sitting together

  • Message: These people truly love each other.
  • Surprise: Martin jumps when Ellen enters; we jump with him, getting a little boost of dopamine—and thereby, engagement.  
  • Framing: We shift to a long shot, containing both of them; we gain another human form to focus on, and centering their embrace in the frame cements that focus.

Part 3: On the porch

  • Message: Martin believes his son is in danger.
  • Voice: Part one of the sequence was almost silent.  Ellen’s entry brought soft dialogue.  Now, Martin’s voice is tinged with anger and fear as he shouts.  The soundtrack follows the message in tone.
  • Framing: We’re in close-ups and medium shots on Martin and Ellen, and in extreme long shots when we take their POV looking at the boat.  Their son’s smallness in frame shows us how far away he feels to Martin and Ellen.
  • Surprise: We don’t expect Ellen to look at the book, or to react the way she does. The scene resolves at high energy, not the calm tone Ellen had projected previously.  It’s funny, and it keeps viewers drilled to the message: if even level-headed Ellen is afraid of the shark, how wild is this film going to get?

Example 2

Let’s take one more classic moment from Jaws and look at the visual design principles of Scribology at play.

Let’s talk about the scene surrounding one of the most famous lines in cinema: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Pursuing the beast on shark-hunter Quint’s ship The Orca, Martin, Quint, and researcher Hooper resolve an argument and Martin goes aft to continue chumming the waters.

Before he sees it, the audience watches the shark rear up out of the water as Martin glares at Quint.

He hears the commotion and sees how close he was to its mouth, and bolts upright.

He walks slowly backwards into the cabin and delivers the legendary line to Quint.

Quint and Hooper come out to look at the thing as it circles their boat: “That’s a twenty-footer,”

Hooper breathes.  “Twenty-five,”

Quint corrects him.  “Three tons of him.”

The Scribology Breakdown:

  • Message: Our heroes are not prepared for a shark this size.
  • Surprise: A 25-foot shark breaching is pretty surprising, to say the least.  It’s a hit of adrenaline and dopamine that absolutely cements engagement.  After all, viewer, you saw what almost happened to our hero when he wasn’t looking at the water—you’d better not miss anything, either.
  • Motion:As he chums the water, Martin’s arm is a pendulum, and our lizard brains keep our eyes locked on the movement.  Then, the shark emerges, and the massive movement of its head takes all of our attention.  To that instinctual, reptilian part of the brain, this is a much more relevant movement—it’s bigger, it’s surprising, and it’s threatening. Then, we’re watching Martin’s half-frozen backward walk: the brain tracks with him, the motion engaging for its weird slowness as much as anything else. Martin’s pace is contrasted with the motion of the shark as it darts around at the surface of the water—fast, confident, exploratory. It’s like a giant gray dart, and the lizard brain doesn’t dare to let it out of its sight.
  • Accent Color: Jaws’ Accent Color is gray.  Even in this scene, everything most worthy of attention is accented with gray: Martin’s button-down shirt, Hooper’s sweatshirt, Quint’s hat, and the shark’s skin.  With this use of gray, Spielberg ties together the crucial elements of the scene.  Each gray-accented character gets a moment in the short clip—first Martin complains by the water, then the shark appears and begins to circle, then Hooper opines, and finally Quint gives his verdict on the shark’s size.
  • Image Density: By structuring the last act of Jaws on a boat with only three crewmembers, writer Peter Benchley creates a low density of images throughout this scene.  This means that each image gets full attention each time it’s onscreen—Brody’s shocked face isn’t crowded by other people or elements, so we take his expression in.  It’s an approach to image density that celebrates individual performance through minimal image use.
  • Framing: When the shark appears, Spielberg’s camera is tight on Martin’s face.  When Martin notices the shark, he stands and turns around, and Spielberg cuts up to a close-up of him standing.  Both of these framings keep the viewer in an intimate relationship with Martin, hearing his frustrated mutterings and then staring into his wide eyes as he begins to back away from the aft.
  • Hand-Drawn/Human Forms: The scene is told predominantly through facial expressions, which the human brain is naturally drawn to look at and analyze.  The face is a high-resolution index of information, and it’s all we need to visually tell the story: Martin is petrified, Hooper is spellbound, and the unflappable Quint is actually impressed.  

Scribology is Useful Beyond the Whiteboard

The visual design principles of Scribology aren’t just philosophical abstractions—they’re real world design concepts that help viewers engage with material, focus on its key points, and retain its message.

In Jaws, the use of close-ups, surprising movement, and careful framing creates a sophisticated visual story. These techniques mirror principles of Scribology, and remind us how truly effective those principles are—especially for retention.  It’s been 45 years, and Jaws remains one of the most memorable motion pictures of all time.