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.
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.
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.
The air was blue with my rants as I discovered my site had been hacked. The blog section filled with spammy, fraudulent posts — from the bizarre to the disgusting.
I removed all the bad posts and changed my login credentials, only to discover a few weeks later they were back in my site. How? I’m still not sure, but to shake them off, we took down the site, moved hosting locations and updated all security protocols. Apologies if you were affronted.
It’s not the first time, perhaps it’s also happened to you. Entirely disruptive. It’s hard not to get angry about it. The last time this happened was years ago and I really was furious. This time, more annoyance than anger. I was traveling and enjoying a few days in NYC and took the opportunity to not let it bother me too much. Instead, I took a break from everything and considered the value in the effort of writing blog posts.
It will be nice one day if I can directly link the effort to incoming work…but after some thought, to be honest, I’m doing it for myself. I enjoy it.
Maybe you’ll enjoy one or more of my posts and find them of value, maybe not.
I send them with love in either case.
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.
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.