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.
As some of you may be aware, I’m currently teaching at Skidmore College as the F. William Harder Chair Professor of Management and Business. Being a place of higher education and a fine one at that, there are weekly guest lectures given by thought leaders from both inside and outside academia.
For the most part, these are highly intellectual and interesting discussions. I prefer to think of them as discussions because the Q&A that follow is often more interesting than the lecture itself. Students and faculty engage the speaker with challenging questions. The freewheeling endings, if Skidmore students are a barometer, gives me hope for the future of our country.
A recent discussion led by an extremely well-studied thought leader, presented years of data that pointed to a significant insight in the world of business. I’m not going to try to unpack the topic, my point of writing this post is the use of data.
The data was significant and overwhelmingly clear in what it implied and what could be inferred.
During the Q&A a student asked the million-dollar question. If the data is so clear why is nothing changing…why are the trend lines continuing as they were?
The speakers answer: The data is not enough.
The world has become overly reliant on data as an end point. Data alone is not enough. If it was, no one would ever smoke, Hillary Clinton may have gotten elected and maybe (if this applies to you) more people would buy your brand.
Compelling ideas move people. Ideas that slap folks in the face, stun them into awareness and seep into their hearts, turn ideas into action.
This is the work of creativity. Let’s get busy.
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.
To the untrained observer, walking a tightrope seems like a high-risk activity. To the well-trained acrobatic artist, the tightrope is a platform for their creativity. The risks are well-calculated and the practice so refined, that confidence brings buoyancy to their work.
In the world of ideas, clients and agencies must come to a mutual understanding of well-calculated risk. The goal is break-through creative that challenges norms, animates the brand and motivates the audience.
For many clients, there’s also an additional objective; “not to do any worse than the past brand manager or campaign.” There’s nothing wrong with a good dose of self-preservation.
To the unprepared client, work that appears as if on a tightrope is going to incite fear of doing worse. To the agency, it’s the platform from which to demonstrate their hard-won skills and highly developed talents.
It takes a trusting client-agency relationship to explore boundaries and push the limits of creativity. The goal is to see the tightrope not as a high-risk activity, but as a well-calculated and desirable achievement that will deliver growth for their brand.
Confidence is the glue that binds us to big ideas.
The world will never be less chaotic than it is right now. That is so say, the complexity of life will continue to challenge us. In the presence of ever-expanding complexity, how do we get our story through the noise? How best to communicate our ideas?
A singularity of vision with a concise understanding of the problem solved is essential. The story must be equally comprehensible and told with economy.
The creativity is then free to become inventive. Creativity is the liberator of strategy.
Creativity has an obligation to deliver the idea fully rendered in the heart and mind of the audience. Clarity is actionable.
Complexity defeats clarity in the execution. The best creative talents understand this and labor to create clarity in their ideas and executions.
Visual clarity and written clarity combined to create conceptual clarity. The dual compliment.
Over written, over directed, over acted, over designed executions are warning signs. Perhaps the idea is weak and there is an attempt to prop it up. Or the creative team is letting their egos get in the way.
Maybe they lack the experience to know better.
Simplicity is recompense for years of effort.
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.
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.