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.
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.
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.