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How to Use Hands in Your Visual Storytelling

Actions speak louder than words, and there’s something about telling a story with my hands that I just can’t place.

We all know a great movie when we see it. We usually think it’s great because of the scene composition, great dialogue, or dynamic character selection. Sometimes words can’t tell the full story. It may be that some things are better left unsaid, or too many words make the scene look like an exhibition dump. A great solution is an effective visual element that allows the audience to learn more about the character and their situation.

When it comes to visual elements look no further than the hand. The hand is a human tool that enables us to show how we feel, to rule a space or to build up a capacity to act by pointing to a thing or a person. Think of the hand as an extension of the brain that can guide a viewer through a scene when there is not enough dialogue to tell the story.

Now you see it collapses how the hand can be used to show control, loss of control, intimacy, trust, and even compassion from an unfamiliar hand. Watch the full video here:

One of the best and most common uses of the hand is to show the dynamics of power between two characters.

One of the first examples of this was in the 1936 Chevrolet documentation, Master hands. The documentary follows the hands of workers assembling a car and ends with a pair of hands grabbing the steering wheel, indicating that the same workers who assemble the car are doing it for other workers. The message suggests that hard work is rewarded; Unfortunately, due to poor working conditions and hard work that was barely rewarded, the workers’ strikes that year were the worst they have ever seen.

As soon as the hands were off the machine, the hands were free to act at will. A free hand does what the person wants, which is why many workers’ parties and communist parties use the hands as a symbol to take power back from the oppressor.

The two different hands – one that is an extension of the machine and the other that is the extension of oneself – reflect the level of control a person has. We still see this in movies today, as a person can command an action with a simple gesture of the hand.

in the war of stars, the power is a hand superpower. Darth Vader can force Conan Antonio Motti (Richard LeParmentier) by simply raising his hand to show that he holds the power in the room. The hand extends the user’s physical control over his surroundings and shows the dynamics of power between those who can wield power and those who are not force sensitive.

Just as the hand can show power, losing a hand shows a lack of control. Vader and Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber duel in Reich strikes back ended up with Luke’s hand being severed, which is a cruel and fantastic way of indicating a power imbalance.

Similar to Master hands, Lord of the Rings falsely empowers the hand through the One Ring. Although the ring gives some power to the person wearing it, it is a tool used by Sauron to enslave the user. The hand that carries the ring is not free. Many fantasy films use the hand to show the power imbalance between protagonist and antagonist.


Severed hand in “The Evil Dead”Recognition: New Line cinema

The hand can also be viewed as alien and inhuman. We all know what a normal hand looks like, and showing an abnormal hand is a great way to tell the normal from the strange. A severed hand is a common horror trope used to show that something has a mind of its own. It is a hand without a master.

in the District 9‘Wikus’ (Sharlto Copley) hand begins to mutate into the hand of a shrimp, giving him the ability to wield the alien weapons. Wikus is not only physically different, his motives are different from the people he works with. The hand changing into something else is the liberation from a system that a character disagrees with.

Then there is the trusting hand. Hands are an easy way to show visual collaboration or attraction with a simple touch. Characters are constantly touching in Call me by your name to show their love for one another. In one of the final scenes, Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) constantly reassures Elio (Timothée Chalamet) that he is loved and supported, by touching his shoulder or patting his head.

A contrast to the trusting hand is the unfulfilled hand, the hidden and cold hand. The father in american beauty keeps his hands close and refuses to touch anyone. When he does, it’s cold and strange and unfulfilled to the character who wanted his comfort.

If hands can be used to speak, then hands can be used to tell a story. Hands are an extension of the brain and can carry metaphors through the film or convey complicated ideas that words would fail. Next time you’re making a movie, try playing with the small details of the human body. Frame the hands in the center of the frame to show the character’s strength or gentleness, or have a character raise their hand for a drink without having to say a single word. There are so many options, all you have to do is experiment and see what works for your movie.

What are some of your favorite examples of storytelling by the hands? Let us know in the comments below!

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