Observational tension is a tool of the storyteller, more often felt than discussed. Its subtle power renders a disquieting tone that invites audience emotion to enter the scene. The tension of a shot that lingers on a subject after the dialogue or apparent action has ended can deliver extraordinary poignancy. It does not work in this way automatically, it requires the right moment in a story, perhaps during an emotional dialogue, or monologue or action during which a character is wrapped in a physical experience.
Observation is part of the idea at work. It can be the observation of the character, akin to documentary, where the camera is objective to the scene, a bit removed from the action. But observational tension can also exist in the subjective as we are inside the scene and with the characters, we can then relate to their objective observation within the story. We are with them.
Experienced directors and cinematographers, actors and editors will look for and create moments to put the tension of observation to work in service of the story. Being attuned to these moments in the creation of a script, filming a scene, a documentary as it unfolds, and in the edit is an essential skill.
These moments of tension, of observation, can be as simple as the slow unfolding of ripples from a pebble dropped into a still pond, the uncomfortable silence between two characters, an expansive view of a prairie, or the lingering, insecure glance of a lover. Allowing a few extra beats on these types moments accentuate the tension of the observation.
The internal tension of these scenes is enhanced, by the intention of what comes before, as well as what comes after. It is the juxtaposition of image and emotion, scene-to-scene, shot-to-shot, beat-to-beat that gives the observational moment the additional tension that amplifies its emotive power. It moves the story along.
A subjective view of a brash, young driver inside a speeding car racing and swerving through crowded streets. Followed by a scene of an old man, walking very slowly across the road, approaching a step up a curb, the camera stays fixed on the old man as the car flashes by obscuring our view of the old man, only to have him emerge once again unscathed. The camera lingering on him for a few extra beats as he wobbles a bit, amplifying the frailty of our existence. The car roars off into the distance.
Observational tension or the tension of observation, no matter how you look at it, it’s a perspective worthy of attention.
The rise of Ai and its impact on image making has me rethinking what it means to create photographic work. It’s true that images have been easily manipulated since the earliest days of photography, but each day it gets tougher to tell the difference between fiction and non-fiction. It’s wonderful and discouraging at the same time. Photography is not illustration. Ai, to me, is more akin to illustration. This post image was captured approximately 23 years ago during a trip to Andros Island in the Bahamas. I was on a fishing holiday and during down time wandered the island with the Holga. For the uninformed, the Holga is a medium format camera (plastic lens, no light meter). Finding focus is no small task either. Everything by eye and importantly, feel. The B&W film was processed, and I pulled a contact sheet. I would scan the contact sheets because I did not have a film scanner. Other than scanning the contact sheet, no manipulation was done to the image. It is as I saw it, as I captured it. It’s an accurate representation of reality. It is non-fiction.
Ai as a tool of fiction does not diminish its value or potential but to me, it is not photography. It is commercial, it is industrial, it will change many things but for the moment at least, it lacks an easily achieved celluloid negative, proof positive of a life more tangible.
For brands seeking to connect with an audience seeking authenticity, like Gen Z for instance, Ai generated images represent the exact opposite. As consumers we may all get fooled once, but great brands deal in authenticity. It’s true that many a brand has leaned heavily into illustration to tell its value, but those illustrations are also authentic works aligned with the authenticity of the brand. Little opportunity existed for the consumer to question if the talent is a real person, no matter how retouched.
The Dove Real Beauty Campaign is a perfect example of consumers seeking authenticity. There is no room for a lack of authenticity with Dove consumers. Hint, hint, there’s none for your brand either.
An Ai rendering of a person is a complete work of fiction. Is the spokesperson, the influencer real? A lack of authenticity will eventually reveal itself as fiction. Even in the sugary perfection of most advertising campaigns, the greatest brands are anchored in their authenticity. If the lived experience of the customer does not align with the promise, the authenticity of the brand, the customers will vote with their wallets.
Ai generated images make a great case for film capture as a validating providence for images anchored in authentic origins.
Asynchronous and disharmonious, the overuse of slow motion has become a sickness, a plague on the timeline of corporate video.
Slow motion is very often beautiful to watch, but it should be used with intention and in support of some action or emotion essential to the story. Used appropriately, like close-ups, like a spice, it adds the perfect note of sensation to a scene.
Slow motion sickness is easy to spot. It is characterized by footage slowed down, not to accentuate a moment, build drama, or elicit emotion but to “cover” dialogue.
The devil is often found in the script: an abundance of words without action or much story interest or subject to film.
The time to cure slow motion sickness is before you rock-up and start rolling camera. Whenever I catch myself or someone else saying we’ll just grab some B-roll, I pull up hard and ask, what exactly is the goal of this script? Are we shooting B-roll with clear intention, tied to the script? Are we creating something of real interest that people will want to watch? Or are we placating the client? Are we afraid to confront the script? Dropping in B-roll, especially slow-motion, unhinged from the speaker or subject, takes the viewer out of the story.
Asking the tough questions upfront can be tricky and having a strong and honest rapport with the client is essential to creating something meaningful the audience will watch.
I’d rather have a tough conversation upfront then risk “grabbing” B-roll. Please, no more irrelevant slow motion of hands typing, colleagues in hallways, people on phones laughing…. unless it is punctuating the scene in a meaningful way. Avoiding the tough discussion about the weakness of the script, or lack of access to relevant locations and people is the equivalent of kicking the can down the road and sticking it to your editor.
If limitations on the project make it impossible to film the subject matter effectively and limits the type of footage to be captured, the result is often slow-motion sickness. If you cannot gain access to film the subject at hand, and the talent involved are both subject and proxy for the subject, then hammer out that script, tighten it up. Make your talent the star, get appropriate coverage, shoot relevant B-roll with specific ideas about where it belongs in the script.
Slow-motion should be used like flavorful spice and not ladled on like heavy cream.
Here’s a challenge; find two pieces of content on the web, one with good quality audio and a poor image and the other with good image and poor audio. Which one keeps you more engaged?
A recent study suggests that inferior quality audio reduces credibility of the content. You can read the findings here. If you have been doing this work for any length of time this is not news. Budget impacts often force poor decisions, and the linked study might provide ample evidence to a client who does not understand why a few extra bucks can make or break a production. Quality is needed on every dimension and audio is no exception.
Way too much attention is spent wringing hands on camera choice and hardly a thought given to audio, audio gear, operators. For instance, production folks love to wax poetic about lenses. Mics are the audio equivalent of lenses, yet rarely does anyone discuss which mic is best suited to the job, which recording device, pre-amps, etc. Thank goodness for expert audio engineers who quietly make us all look good. I am no audio expert, but I “love me” some good audio. I give it equal importance to all the other elements of production.
Credibility plays a huge role in holding the attention of your audience. All one needs to do is look at the break-off rate of viewers to the average piece of content, and you will notice that the drop rate is higher than you would like. It is incredibly difficult to keep an audience engaged for an entire piece of content. Having a relevant story to tell is, of course, the most important. To tell it well, that is where the rubber meets the road. Don’t let poor sound quality be the reason your audience disengages.
Technical expertise is table stakes. Without a solid framework of technical skill, it is almost impossible to execute the story creatively. Ideally you will have great imagery and great sound, no compromises. Clear, clean audio needs to be heard.
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.
Block, Light, Rehearse, Shoot.
It’s happened before, technology democratizes an industry and craft suffers before it rises again. There is a rash of technique over substance. We need a conscious return to the craft of story in the creation and execution of brand ideas.
The art of the story must be paramount to the art of the production. Thanks to the internet, there exists an insatiable desire for content. And thanks to the democratization of the technologies of content creation, everyone with a camera and a zoom recorder is suddenly a producer.
Content is delegitimizing advertising.
The skill and creativity of the story teller, not necessarily the gear involved, is one of the prime ingredients in the craft. In the right hands, the appropriate gear has the potential to make a great story that much stronger in execution. In and of itself, all the gear in the world will not make a better story. Flying cameras, movement for the sake of movement, outrageous POV shots are often senseless and usually add expense. If not integral to the telling, these production hijinks are significant distractions from your brand idea. In a very real sense these distractions cost you twice. The essential skills of blocking in support of the scene, lighting supports the performance and rehearsing action that will deliver the intended emotion seem to be a lost art in the world of brand content.
All the technical expertise in the world will not make a bad story better.
Most production companies are not built like agencies; most are built for episodic engagements, not brand stewardship. Building and safeguarding your brand story takes a long-term view, it takes insight and planning and strategy and great creative ideas, smartly executed. This is the work of brand agencies.
Today there is a profusion of production companies that have technical skill because the technology has made it much easier to look and sound good. Technical skill does not make them effective at decoding your story. A direct engagement with a production company may make your marketing budget look cheaper on paper but the long-term cost may be significant.
Insight driven strategy liberates creativity.
Really good agencies know this, and really good clients know this too. Really good production companies know this and expect to partner with brand agencies. A great commercial director wants to understand your brand and its audience and she wants to partner with your agency. This is where your brand agency insight and executional expertise will guide the production team and help them tell your brand idea in the most compelling way.
This is the work of producing content; to tell your brand idea, and it is why brand agencies employ creative directors, writers, art directors, strategists and producers, to define your brand idea. And then in partnership with the director working to a clear idea, shot by shot, adding and building scenes, intention upon intention, the entire production is aligned with the purpose of your brand.
This is the craft of vocal pictures.
When I first started working in the industry, I had a great experience, or I should say, set of experiences, that really enhanced my technical and artistic understanding of film and photography. Where to place the camera is one of the most important decisions we make in the effective telling of a story. When we get it right we create vocal pictures.
I was fresh out of Parsons School of Design and met my friend Kevin O’Callaghan. Kevin is now a prominent instructor at the School of Visual Arts and an industry legend, not only for his excellence as an instructor, but also for his amazing work in 3D illustration, sculpture and art installations. Kevin is what he has always been, a creative genius.
With Kevin I began working creating props and special effects for film and TV. Together we worked on a number of projects, some in conjunction with Dale Malley, at the time one of the country’s leading independent prop makers.
We worked on television spots for Atari, making 3D live-action TV sets that played video games with each other. We crafted giant ice cubes, a giant glass and a giant can for 7Up and built colorful, moving props for BonJour Jeans. We made props for the Rodney Dangerfield film Easy Money and recreated aspects of the Oval office for a film about JF Kennedy with Martin Sheen; we made props for a Mid-Summer Night’s Sex Comedy with Woody Allen, the Flamingo Scooter for the Flamingo Kid with Matt Dillon…the list goes on.
Everything we built, no matter how fantastic, needed to fool the eye, to be real…enough. We had to be convincing in our execution of these props and effects. Some were incredibly authentic to original objects we had been asked to reproduce, others were pure fantasy writ large. This was fun, exciting and interesting work during which I learned a great deal about what the camera will see, or more specifically, what we see and what looks convincing on film. The understanding of how light interacts with various colors, surfaces and structures remain invaluable. The most important aspect of course is that all these aspects are delivering on the intention of the scene and the film as a whole.
The demand for video content and the need to tell brand stories in interesting ways requires first and foremost a great insightful story and then the ability to tell it effectively.
Photography and film is a science of both light and time, the manipulation of these fundamental elements can make or break a piece of content. It’s about what you are filming and how you film it. Where you place the camera and how you light the subject are two of the most important decisions that need to be made.
From my perspective (pun intended), not enough thought and creativity is put into this aspect of video content creation. There is a great deal of stylistic sameness; the industry repeating itself. This works against the differentiation of your brand. The execution of the story should be anchored in the uniqueness of your brand story, not in the latest trend or enabling technology. If you’ve ever watched a video and the production techniques end up being more interesting than the story, you understand the problem.
If the idea is not crystal clear and interesting, then all the slick execution in the world will not make it better.