One of the challenges that comes with the democratization of camera technology is that anyone who can afford a video camera or smart phone can consider themselves filmmakers. “Do it yourself” starts to feel like an obligation because it seems so achievable. 

Running around swinging a camera, pointing-it here, there, and everywhere without the benefit of intentional lighting is a disease of the digital age.  

Just because one can record an image does not automatically make it good. What is good? Good is an image in service of a relevant story. Good is an image crafted to evoke the appropriate intention and mood of the scene. Good is a frame, designed to create the visual tension necessary to hold the gaze of the audience, to keep them in the story. 

Modern cameras and lenses have incredible capability to capture images in low light, some can practically see in the dark, but this does not forgive the need to understand how to light a scene. It is not simply about achieving exposure. 

Even without a proper light kit, the ability to utilize sunlight and practical sources in conjunction with modern camera technology will deliver impressive results. It just takes some knowledge of the principles and the forethought to put them to work.  

Great production is made with great preparation. 

There are countless on-line tutorials, so there are few excuses other than time and the will to do better. For many businesses who do not prioritize their content, the task often falls to younger staff that do not automatically show up with the full range of required skills. Taking this on internally seems efficient but it is anything but. 

The perceived need to keep up a steady stream of content takes precedent over quality. This is a significant misjudgment. The damage inflicted on a brand that churns out subpar content is like repeated exposure to radiation, you may not feel the effects right away, but eventually, it is going to kill you. 

The opportunity cost is real and often realized too late.  

Investing in quality content is not money wasted, it is an investment in the future of your business. Make your work stand out by making it better. Do not let it stand out because of its shoddy workmanship. 

I love light in all its many variations. I’ve walked into walls studying light as it falls on some object or person. It’s an infatuation, an obsession and capturing light is at the root of my love for image making.

Perhaps there is no more beautiful expression than light illuminating human emotion. A face, an expression, an eye, a gesture, a form, and action that communicates the richness of human existence.

When walking into walls or what have you, it’s the intensity of my focus, the attention of my gaze that makes the rest of the world disappear. I’m locked on to the beauty. This astounding ability of the human mind to bring a very selective attention and clarity to complex visual and audio landscapes it what we do our best to emulate in film making.

Once the idea is defined and all the inessential parts removed what remains is ideally a powerful story. The cameras and lights and audio gear are manipulated to achieve, as close as possible, the selectivity of our innate human abilities.

In this context the camera is an editing tool. Protecting equally what is in the frame as well as protecting what is out of the frame. Framing the shot is essential in achieving the desired energy and emotion from any scene. It is both art, science and intuition combined. It is design in motion and a significant part of the visual language of film.

Documentary work is a great training ground for cinematographers and directors because the work commands the senses and hones the instincts of story. It quite literally keeps you on your toes. The camera in this context is often the most powerful actor in the scene, engaging with and framing the action.

This is camera work and it’s also editing in action.

In the world of corporate content creation, it often happens that the work is evenly lit, the sound is good, and the music is canned. It’s workman like but lacks dynamism. The work can feel like a forced march through a shot list vs delivering a story. When I see work like this it’s almost always the case that the story is equally flat and not all that interesting. Gut check: is your film ample payoff for the time invested by your audience to watch it?

My best advice to clients, if you don’t have anything important to say then don’t spend money on film production. If you have something important to say, then say it with gravitas, employing all the appropriate tools of the trade.

“In film, we sculpt time, we sculpt behavior, and we sculpt light.”
– David Fincher

Invest the money and the time commitment needed. Make sure the story direction is strong, clear and communicates with intention. Don’t sell your goal short. The most important thing is the arc and clarity of the story.

Lots of quick cuts and irrelevant B roll are poor substitutes for a real story. It’s very easy to distract your audience, especially if your story is not crisp. A drone shot is a distraction unless it is elevating the story.

Creating tension in the frame with contrast ratios is essential to supporting the story, scene, and talent with appropriate dimensions of light. Light that helps motivate the action, that creates visual tension in the frame works to keep the audience engaged. Don’t be afraid of dramatic lighting. Embrace an unmoving camera and focus on the performance, the telling of your story. Move the camera, only if it helps tell the story in a more effective manner. Build interesting soundscapes too. The ears perceive more than more than you may realize. Embrace all the tools.  Focus on a complete multi-dimensional telling of the story.

Even though your cast may not be professional actors, doesn’t mean they cannot be compelling on screen. With the right preparation and coaching, you’ll be surprised at what your team can do.

Telling something truly is more work but the payoff will be a more engaging and compelling story, a story that heads for the heart.

I recently came across this wonderful quote attributed to Ann Richards, commenting on the talents of the famed dancer Ginger Rogers.

“After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”

The phrase “backwards and in high heels” struck a chord with me. It reminds me of camera work. Especially the hand-held or shoulder mount variety. I love this type of work, particularly in a less scripted context like a documentary project.

It gives the feeling of doing a dance with the subject and the subject matter, following the lead of the story. The work of following the action, framing, pulling focus is very much performance art. It hones the instincts and sharpens the senses. It also places me in the heart of the story, not observing from a distance but observing from the inside.

The intimacy of the viewfinder and anonymity of the camera are a strange and lovely paradox.

When I’m hired to produce a story, it is authenticity we are after. This is what is so powerful about documentary work. It’s an act of bravery. For people who have a story they want to tell, it’s essential that our relationship is anchored in trust and mutual appreciation. It’s all part of the dance that shows up on the screen.

As partner to Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers was certainly his equal, if not superior, in every way.

Their combined talents achieve something more than either could do alone.

When I put the camera on my shoulder and the brief is in my head, I’m looking for the truth. The deeper story, the stuff beyond mere words and pictures, the stuff that reaches the heart. Truth in performance; the essence of the idea to be communicated. The process starts again in editing, to polish the delivery of the idea, the emotion.

The brief is the framework, it establishes the context of creation. It impacts everything downstream; concept development, script, directing, photography, casting, location, tonality, mood, lighting, the entire production design…the works.

The brief is the springboard for ideas to take flight. A great brief is also anchored in the truth of the brand. The brief is a contract with the creative. The brief is also a contract with the truth. Not “truthiness.” The truth.

Occasionally, attempts are made to exploit “truthiness.” Savvy marketers know that great ideas communicate beyond the execution. They know the right ideas generate emotions that cannot be measured through any single ingredient that goes into execution. Truthiness can be tempting.

You can imagine the dismay when the client says, “The idea will not work because we cannot actually communicate that.” Discussion ensues.

It’s a mistake for anyone to use the brief as an opportunity to manipulate the creative work to communicate something that’s not entirely true. Creativity is a powerful tool and can certainly be made to imply things that are not the truth. Clever creative work, not anchored in truth, may achieve a temporary spike in sales but it’s a short money game. Disappointed customers, misled by “truthiness” will flee. Nothing sticks to a brand like the voices of unhappy customers. Truthiness does not build better brands.

Try making a better product.

Constraint was a formidable ingredient in the creation of a film I made in college. The film was a visually driven story of my childhood haunts on Long Island including the beaches, boats, foggy harbors, and associated sounds. From rushing winds and crashing waves, to the song of the gulls and the rocking and creaking of boats, it was poetic expression. The musical sound track I chose was an open hole flute orchestration by the legendary Sir James Galway. The breathy sound of the flute seemed the perfect voice to tell the story.

There were no actors, but I’ll suggest the camera was the character. My work with the camera exploring and observing these locations at all times of day helped me craft the story. I used an 8MM Kodak camera with a wind-up mechanical drive and no audio. It was a family camera, and all I could afford. I had enough cash for 4 rolls of color film and processing. My audio recording device was a portable cassette machine.

Hitting various locations at the best light and multiple days, I had to carefully apportion my film stock. I limited myself to 3 rolls, saving the 4th for additional shooting that might be needed.

Editing involved working at an edit table jammed under a staircase in a school hallway. I made the set-up work to my advantage. The bottom of the stairs over my head were a perfect place to hang the various pieces of film as I cut and arranged the edit. I worked out a system using the lower stairs, right over my head, for the beginning scenes and worked my way up for the final scenes on the higher stairs. In this way, I could work out the cut and remain organized.

Once I had a cut I liked, I got to work on the audio; this was particularly challenging. I worked out a system with my limited gear using multiple tape players to build the audio. It was a nightmare. For distant sounds, the player volume was lowered, and I even moved the machine doing the recording further away. In this way, I built a recording of all the atmospheric sounds in time to the cut and the music. This involved countless attempts before it all fell together. It wasn’t perfect but it worked well enough.

In the final screening, I had to hit play on the projector and the tape deck at precisely different times for the cues to hit as planned. I worked out a syncopated countdown in my head and practiced it over and over until it was second nature.

The day of the screening, miraculously, it all came together. The visuals and audio in perfect sync; more or less. In a moment of failed judgement, I left a corny end scene in place. The words “The End” written in the sand being washed away by a succession of waves. I still cringe.

Constraint is a powerful motivation in creativity and innovation. One of the purposes of a brand brief or project brief is to outline the challenge, the constraint…the problem to be solved. Constraint is our partner in creativity, not something to be bemoaned but embraced.

To quote Bob Dylan, “No one is free, even the birds are chained to the sky.”

 

The author generated the image for this post utilizing OpenAI’s large scale image generation model Dall-e 2. The words used by the author to generate the image; flying bird in a sky made of chains. The author reviewed the image before posting and agrees it reflects the input and accepts responsibility of its publication.