It is a character’s personal history that intrigues us and compels us to follow her on her journey, whether across an entire continent or simply to the bathroom to brush her teeth. It’s the hint of hidden moments still bearing an influence on her which turns each of us into existential detectives, teasing out the threads that explain her behavior and decisions. Our curiosity can’t resist the mystery of the other person.
But how do you add backstory to a tale told in one still frame or in a thirty second advertisement, for that matter?
It’s all in the details.
Seemingly mundane details actually invigorate the familiar, elevating the trivial to the exceptional. When telling a story, tantalizing details are installed by skillful photographers, novelists, and cinematographers in such a way that they might appear arbitrary and indiscriminate, even slapdash. In reality, however, those details speak to the subconscious of the audience, revealing a character’s history through intuitive observations. A suitcase, abandoned carelessly in the midst of unpacking, a discarded book, small details that divulge an eagerness to begin a romantic weekend.
The staging of a scene involves integrating details that alone may seem meaningless, but when taken with the scene as a whole, make a higher kind of sense. It’s necessary, therefore, for the storyteller to know the untold biography of a momentary character. This intimate knowledge of imagined histories allows a creative director to choose exactly which books to place on a coffee table for a scotch advertisement or to envision the beloved stoneware mug that reminds the television mother of her son away at college.
Like a Vermeer painting, the staging of a scene requires nuance and attention to detail to tell a dynamic story within the setting of a static art form. In The Kitchen Maid, the artist captures the simple life of a young servant through telling minutia – a small crack in the glass pane, rough patches in the whitewashed plaster, a twig of firewood strewn on the floor.
These trivialities turn the image of a girl into the history of this unique girl. Small though they are, these elements call to us to give the girl closer inspection, to ask questions about her, to invest in her experience, and in doing so, her history becomes a part of our own history. When that magic happens in commercials and advertisements, viewers pull out boxes of tissues as they share in the lives of fictional mothers and fathers and children.
When each detail is laid bare to incite the senses, it borders on the sublime.