Visual Argument: How Much Detail?

Example 1

Watch JUST THE FIRST SECOND of the following video and then read the commentary below.


FIRST DRAFT STUDENT ANALYSIS: Dog lying on some sort of table. Looks injured. In the background is a faded bloody bandage over one of the legs. It could be animal abuse or some type of accident.


The dull sheen of the table indicates it is steel or perhaps another industrial surface.

It is clean, suggesting the dog is indoors.

The light overhead and the soft shadow the dog casts on the tabletop indicate further that the scene is an interior, as does the “fixture-type” lighting in the background.

The bloody bandage is not surgical gauze; rather, it looks like a knotted dish towel with a frayed edge, so most likely it was applied in a home by a homeowner, not by a veterinarian.

This suggests that the dog has not yet received medical attention.

Perhaps a recent wound or surgery has opened and the dog’s owner tried to stem the flow?

Or maybe the dog received a new injury at or near home and an owner used a temporary bandage to help it until professional help could be found?


The camera slowly moves in on the dog’s face and eyes, which blink and then open wide.

Whatever else may be going on in the video, we are being asked to carefully consider and attend to this suffering animal.

Almost as if we were bringing our own faces closer to his, we move in to comfort him.

His eyes roll up a bit to indicate that he is aware of our closeness, signalling further that he is conscious and alert enough to take note of his surroundings.

He is a character in a drama, not a prop.

Example 2

The first second of video.


The ad starts very abruptly in the middle of a scene. What’s more, in the first second, the camera is zooming quickly back so that we have to adjust immediately to a barrage of information. The suggestion the filmmakers are making is that the footage was captured by an amateur camera operator, either for home video or maybe a low-budget documentary. Either way, we are given the impression that the footage is “real,” not staged by a director with hired actors.

The image quality too is low. It’s color photography, but the color is so washed-out we get the further impression of a low-budget production. It’s almost black-and-white.

We are behind the counter of a diner. We can tell this from the “marble” countertop before us and the ketchup bottles and napkin holders on the shelf below it. Attached to the countertop is a familiar menu-holder, empty of menus. Even closer to the camera (which suggests the footage was taken from the kitchen, through the service window) is a red-top bottle of Angustora bitters. Another can be seen on the counter where customers could access it, alongside the ketchup bottle and the sugar server. The only common use for bitters is as a cocktail flavor. The implication is that this is a diner where drinks are served; therefore, we have at least the implication that some diners might be drinking.

Facing us at the counter are two young boys (one black, one white) dressed in similar sport jerseys. They are probably teammates. Next to the white boy is a crew-cut man in his 30s with longish sideburns. If he were heavier, he would resemble Kevin James from “King of Queens.” The implication is that he is a robust, perhaps a bit rough-edged, working-class guy here with his team, perhaps their coach, maybe father to one of the kids. He wears a lanyard around his neck; perhaps a whistle hangs from it, and a warmup jacket: coachwear.

On the counter between him and the white boy is a fielder’s glove. They are a baseball team. The kid is not a catcher.

Behind the three at the counter, a man and a woman occupy opposite sides of a booth. They are engaged in conversation. The man resembles Joe Pesci from “Goodfellas,” advancing the impression that we’re in a working-class diner. The bowling pin behind him, part of the decor of the place, further confirms this. The lone framed artwork decorating the space is a black-and-white photo of an urban street scene. Coffee cups are stacked upside-down in the service area behind the woman, whose hand motion before her face indicates she is the one doing the talking.

At the counter, our main characters have been served. The man is pointing at something large on the white boy’s plate. In fact, he points at it repeatedly and says something about it to the boy. Most likely he is picking up the tab. Maybe he doesn’t want that big dish wasted.

From a filmmaker’s point of view, the composition of the figures is very important. The characters are arranged in a line. Black boy at counter, Man in Booth facing woman in booth, White Boy at counter, Woman in Booth facing man in booth, Coach gesturing with his hand toward White Boy’s plate. His active hand gesture draws our attention. When he stops moving, the woman starts moving her hand in the very same space, keeping our attention on that spot, but shifting our focus to the conversation she’s having with the Man in the Booth. In one second, we have information about two different conversations. Both are clearly important.

End of the first second.