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.
In my personal quest to make YouTube more enjoyable, here’s a tip to all of you content creators out there.
There is such a thing as acceptable audio levels.
Even among those that seem to understand the principles, there are many content publishers that believe it is ok to blast their cheesy intro music.
There seems to be an assumption that loudness is a valuable tactic; that we all have the same taste in cheesy music and want to hear an entire 15 seconds of yours, often accompanied by equally cheesy graphics. These intros are not that entertaining. If creators feel they are building their brand, think again. Annoying your potential audience is hardly a path to brand success.
Nobody needs or wants to get blasted by your intro.
Broadcast networks and streaming platforms adhere to and enforce guidelines.
YouTube continues to allow the abuse of decibels. It takes care on the part providers to make sure the decibel level is within compliance. YouTube, appears more interested in its own interest than it is in delivering a consistent quality experience to its users.
I will routinely and immediately stop watching content when the audio level is significantly higher than the preceding content. Tolerating bad behavior will not lead to change.
There are several sources that provide guidance. Here’s an example from Frameio: https://blog.frame.io/2017/08/09/audio-spec-sheet/
Specification #1: Loudness
The U.S. Congress passed the CALM Act (H.R. 1084/S. 2847) in 2010. It requires the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to establish rules that govern television commercial loudness. And it states that commercials can’t be louder than the shows that precede them. The FCC, along with a few television standards committees and organizations, established an algorithm called the ITU-R BS.1770-3, which measures the perceived loudness of program material. This algorithm itself is applied to the technical standards known as EBU R128 (in Europe) and ATSC A/85 (in the United States) and you should check the standards of your particular market when delivering.
I’m doing a disservice to advertising suggesting that content is adverting. It’s clearly not advertising in the legitimate sense. But as part of the world of video communications, content creators need to be held accountable to the same guidelines as everyone else.
The loudness tactic by content makers is a fool’s game.
The most important context of user experience design is consumer mindset.
Before we start pushing pixels around, we should be working hard to understand consumer wants and needs. Gathering insights into their emotional desires is critical to creating an experience, throughout the entire customer journey, that in both subtle and direct ways will reinforce your brand’s ability to help fulfill their desire.
These learnings can inform all design in both form and content to help deliver effective consumer engagement.
Once prototypes are developed, conducting user experience research, including eye tracking, allow refinements to be made that work to optimize the user experience right down to the micro interaction level.
Creators need to find the right balance between being engaging-entertaining while also being honest about the fact that the entire purpose is to facilitate the customers acquisition of the product or service.
User experience can also be thought of as utility.
The utility of the user experience, as a lens through which to view the entire customer journey, offers designers the opportunity to apply their talents to enhance the performance of the entire team.
Understanding and tracking the entire customer journey is essential to a successful engagement. The fractured media environment today demands simple brand ideas that are delivered simply and always in context of consumer desires. When user experience design diverges from the brand idea, it is no longer doing its job well. There are often opportunities to chase trends and implement ideas, methods, and tactics that may create a short-term boost in sales, but at the same time are weakening the brand.
In the long run, a great, well-executed, brand idea will outperform clever transactional tactics. It takes a strong idea and the willpower to resist the temptation of short-term thinking to build a strong and enduring brand.
To connect the dots, the customer experience journey is an obligation to the brand idea and strong brands are anchored in the mindset of consumer desire.
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.
Allow me to rant about YouTube for a few minutes. I consume a lot of media via YouTube. I’m insatiably curious. I watch all kinds of media from all kinds of publishers from all over the world. Maybe you do too.
YouTube is sort of like TV, but worse in its use of advertising. TV has gotten bad; in fact, it is a shambles because they lost the narrative. Like many others, I cut the cord. Instead, I’m paying more for 4 or 5 different streaming services. The programming tends to be better overall. The user experience is not convenient. I want to pay less, have better programming and greater convenience.
TV used to have them on convenience, everything they offer all in one place, minus the pay walls. YouTube is convenient. I’m talking about the allegedly free version, but the user experience is horrible. Some of the content posted for free by its creators is awesome. Most of it is crap, but I get to choose what I watch and find programming I value and enjoy. The options are far greater and geekier than any traditional TV programming.
There is a more organic relationship on television between show creators, advertisers and the networks. They’re all in on the gag together. The use of advertising on YouTube is a vulgar onslaught, a cold, ill-timed smack in the face.
The internet serves up great ads and the worst dreck I’ve ever seen. Your perfectly executed idea is surrounded by crap. Rarely is any of it delivered with respect for the programming or the audience. It’s a race to the bottom.
The ad servers have control and have no issue slapping you upside the head with an ad right in the middle of an extremely poignant moment. It may be a powerful interview, artist portrait, great musical performance, film, cutting edge news broadcast, you name it; but the robots and the people that built them do not give a damn about the quality of the experience.
There are no gentle hand-offs between programming and advertising. It’s hideous. I find it so annoying that it makes me dislike the brands involved. Advertisers beware, you are turning off your potential customers because the ad servers that you pay to deliver impressions don’t really care about you or your customers.
The system is gamed against us both. Advertisers pay for impressions and the impression is, “go piss off.”
The latest trick of the platform is to have advertisers create short ads that the user is not allowed to skip. These ads are just as annoying. Recently, I noticed that it takes multiple taps on the skip button before it skips. Frustrating. I can’t skip fast enough and I’m not alone, and they know it.
Then there are the long form spots, the 15-minute variety. Some of these spots are longer than the programming. If you let these play the entire way through, you no longer remember the sentence or whatever, when the ad cut off your program. The people behind these platforms do not care about your brand, about your potential customers, or your sales. They only care about their sales; not about the negative impression they are fomenting about your brand.
When programming, networks and advertisers work together to create a quality experience everyone benefits. This is the power of the traditional broadcast model. It’s not too late to fix it, to get back to delivering a quality experience. The broadcast networks need to fight back with better programming. YouTube needs to go to school. Netflix is now entering the fray with the “free version.” Perhaps they’ll do a better job.
In the meantime, we’re all paying the price.
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.
There was a time when almost all media was inclusive. The old analogue days of 13 TV Channels, rooftop antennae, a handful of news programing and perhaps a few dozen major newspapers and magazines. There were some specialized publications, and radio stations were somewhat local, but they were the exceptions. Media was broadly casted by a limited number of producers, reaching millions of people.
Today almost all media is exclusive. Everyone is a specialist, if not due to content, then due to targeting. Even the national and international outlets cater to regional influence, and why not? Effective targeting is also about giving your audience what they want. Or what they think they want. Or what you think they want. Or what the AI predictive models think they want. It’s enough to make us toss our hands into the air and just default to something that feels safe for our brand. Something with hopefully broad appeal that we can run anywhere, hoping our audience will self-identify.
Our segmentation modeling is so divided, it’s become segmentation meddling. Exclusivity in media is a problematic reality if we stick to outdated norms of thinking. Let’s put aside the fact that it has created a platform for every nutjob with a computer and look at what it means for brands. A world of distractions in a distracted world.
Across the paid, owned and earned media landscape, there is now endless fractionalization of your audience which diminishes the reach of your brand. Not because the media is not reaching the target, but because the targets are polarized by the fragmentation.
This polarization is a buzzkill for what might otherwise be a campaign that would jump the chasm into popular culture.
What is popular culture when culture is now unpopular?
Cultural fragmentation may not impact too negatively on major legacy brands, assuming they stay out of harms way. But for newer, smaller brands, success means obsessively focusing on a minimal viable audience. Connecting with this audience and delivering real value to these customers will motivate them as culture ambassadors for your brand. These ambassadors will help the brand bridge to additional culture communities as they share their experience.
Bridging is the major action of digital media. It amplifies the power of word-of-mouth, of shared positive brand experience and helps drive brand growth.
Specificity should be a core part of your strategic and creative development. Create for one specific group of potential customers and build from the core.
In truth, this thinking is nothing new. Perhaps it’s been forgotten. Some brands have not forgotten. Patagonia is one example of a brand that has always been entirely specific in its audience goals and campaign platform. It puts its values of honoring and protecting nature into all it does and communicates. Its current market value is $3 Billion and recently the founder, Yvon Chouinard determined to give it all away to help save our planet.
Patagonia’s specificity of purpose, planning, action, and communication recently arrived in my mailbox in the form of a Patagonia publication, a magazine celebrating people and nature. This is no catalogue of merchandise but a catalog of beliefs and values, and it’s printed on 100% post-consumer recycled paper. It’s a home run in my opinion. I’m a nature fan boy and have, over the years, purchased Patagonia clothing. I still have most of it. It wears like iron. Built to last, not to be discarded. The user experience of the product aligns completely with the mission and values of the company.
This alignment includes Patagonia’s use of media: specific, focused, and effective. You may point out that they use the mail channel to reach me. Why not? It’s a great tactic when used correctly. The publication has value, will be passed on and then recycled. But there is a bit more to it. Within the pub, there are URL’s that lead us deeper into the stories. This publication is a well-integrated driver of brand engagement.
Exclusive media means exclusive opportunities to Head For The Heart.
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.