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.
A friend of Henri Cartier Bresson once said to him, “you do not work, you take a hard pleasure.”
While I often feel I’m working very hard and certainly too long, I must admit I take a pleasure in the work. At its best, it’s inspiring to stare down the proverbial blank sheet of paper.
The work of crafting a simple, expansive idea that holds the power of attention and provokes the desired emotion is where it’s at.
A simple idea can be expressed in many forms and therein lies the charm. This is the hard pleasure, seeing the elegant idea.
As a photographer Bresson was credited with the idea of the decisive moment. He did not come up with these words, but he certainly delivered it with his eye and his camera. He could see and anticipate the decisive moment to press the shutter. To capture the emotion and energy of a moment.
I’m charmed by this. Working, searching out the ideas, seeing them come to form. When I’m lucky, I can admit to anticipating the outcome of my efforts, the moment when I click the shutter in the mind and the idea snaps into view.
Bresson would go deeply into his chosen subject, immerse himself completely for weeks, months, years. It is this devotion that allows the decisive moment to be understood. It is the same behind the cameras as it is behind a blank sheet of paper. Total commitment to the subject allows the ideas to surface, to be seen. It is not usually a happy accident. Ideas are a byproduct of the effort of immersion. Of a selfless giving over to the subject.
Whether I have a camera at the ready, a script in hand or a blank sheet of paper, it is a devotion to the subject that renders the outcome. The ideas, the images, flow from a river of details large and small, from vague associations, references, past experiences, seemingly unrelated events, the song of a bird, a passing road sign, overheard conversations, the sound of the subway, a cold shower, a book well read, or a film watched yet again.
Images… ideas emerge. Devotion, immersion, life.
If you know USP then you’ll not be surprised that Chat GTP delivers USP as one of the key elements of a successful advertising campaign. If you do not know Rosser Reeves and USP, you poor impoverished soul, buy this book: Reality in Advertising
You can also gain a bit of contemporary context here in this article from WARC and Malcolm White. Thank you Malcom.
At one point in my career, I worked at (Ted) Bates Advertising in NYC. Bates was known as the USP agency. The Unique Selling Proposition, was conceived by Rosser Reeves, the one-time creative partner at Bates. Reeves was a visionary ad man and author of Reality in Advertising. In my opinion, it remains one of the best books to be read on the topic, and Reeves a genius.
His idea of the USP has stood the test of time. In fact, during a bit of play with Chat GTP, the prompt: what makes for a successful advertising campaign, delivered USP as part of the response.
Chat GTP response
A successful advertising campaign is typically characterized by several key factors:
It’s important to note that the specific factors contributing to a successful advertising campaign can vary depending on the industry, target audience, and campaign objectives. It’s crucial to conduct thorough research, plan strategically, and continuously evaluate and optimize the campaign to achieve the desired results.
If only it were easy. Maybe Ai will make it all very easy. It’s an oversimplification to read this list like a set of ingredients, that once poured into a bowl will deliver a great dish.
What the list does not tell you is that the man who invented USP also created the line, “M&M’s melt in your mouth, not in your hand.” Clever.
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.
Lately, the economic climate is beginning to feel a bit unsatisfactory. We’ve lived through and survived economic downturns before if that’s what this is. Marketing in a downturn is never fun. Budgets get cut and tougher questions get asked. Inadequate answers abound. Suddenly, the marketing wunderkind down the hall has lost the hop in her step.
Solid advertising works, even in a downturn, because it’s built on solid fundamentals, not on style alone. Real practitioners know the difference between insight driven creativity and the sugared-up confections of transactional engagement.
If yours is the only budget getting cut, the first to go, it’s a sure sign that your management has no idea or faith in success of your advertising and marketing. Real success is measurable and the time to start asking the hard questions is when the sun is still shining.
Patience and Fortitude in tough times.
During the 1930s, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia named the lions that sit astride the entrance to the NY Public Library, Patience and Fortitude, for the qualities he felt New Yorkers would need to survive the economic depression.
Patience and fortitude are two qualities that should be cultivated in every discussion of advertising and marketing. True brand growth takes time and a steady, unwavering commitment to the brand idea. It’s been my experience during tough economic times that not only do budgets get cut, but clients will begin to chase sales through tactics that do not align with the brand. This erodes the brand idea and results in the pursuit of ever more transactional tactics to boost sales.
It’s a race to the bottom.
While in New York City, I took the opportunity to visit some old haunts. I hadn’t had the chance to step inside the renovated Hotel Chelsea, so off we went. I’m not claiming I was a denizen of this much celebrated bastion of creativity in residence. I wasn’t. In the late 70’s as an art student in NY, it was one of those places we’d occasionally end up. A very real New York experience. The Chelsea remains a place for creativity, in fact, while my wife and I were visiting, as if on cue, a small film crew was packing up.
The renovation is spectacular in its thoughtfulness and restraint. Honoring its past and fully embracing its future, a ready canvas for new stories. It’s spot-on-brand and reveals its treasures to the curious. See it for yourself if you can. It’s a powerful example of brand stewardship. As an experience brand, pictures alone will do not do it justice. The warm inviting tones of the piano room, for instance, are enough to make you want to book a room, a shoot, an event, dinner at El Quijote or all four. Experience brands grow through word of mouth and the shared positive experience of its users. Here you have it. The piano room inspired this curious portrait of my better half.
By stark contrast, a short distance away is Hudson Yards, a modern spectacle. Cathedrals of glass that skyrocket while playing with light. Monuments to the moment, bold statements of power and daring and, I’ll add, a bit cold. It’s a different city. It could be anywhere in the modern world. It’s difficult to imagine it will gain the legend and lovely patina of the Chelsea.
The Chelsea remains a testament to itself, the perseverance and resurrection at the hands of its new owners deserves a round of applause. The Hotel Chelsea is part of the fabric of old New York. The richness of its character perhaps never more appreciable than after a day of wandering this ever-changing city, to stand at its lovely bar drinking in its history.
Disrupting your creative team is a detriment to their productivity. You may not want to believe it, but it’s true. The agency ecosystem is rife with meetings, some days are spent almost entirely in meetings. Meetings are not the only black hole. There are the armies of account service personnel, project managers and producers who pop in and ask; Got a minute?
It’s rarely a minute and when you add them all up, along with the frequency, you end up with a creative team that is utterly distracted and not able to focus on the ideas.
It’s true that it is essential that the creative team be kept in the loop, but it is equally essential that they be left alone. No fly zones need to be created, respected, and enforced.
When developing creative ideas, it is not only important to generate lots of ideas, but also just as important to separate the wheat from the chaff and this takes time and hard thinking. Analyzing an idea from multiple directions, turning it over, mulling it, challenging its integrity, finding the weak spots, and shoring them up if possible, or relegating it to the dust bin is serious work.
Every interruption that pulls minds from creative thought is a derailment of progress. This is not just my opinion; it has been well studied. The constant interruptions are one reason creative teams tend to work late into the night, it is one of the rare moments when there is peace in the house.
Protected thinking time does not automatically trigger clever work, but it does mean that you understand and respect the process. Creative workers who feel their time is respected will work more effectively and will work even harder to solve the day’s challenge.
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.