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.
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.
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.
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.
My first year as The F. William Harder Chair Professor of Business Administration at Skidmore College has been a bit of a roller coaster.
The good kind, thrilling without the sense of impending doom that you get in those “poop your pants” rides that seem to push the limits of engineering. I went into this gig with some trepidation, not knowing how I’d fare. Not knowing is a good thing in my book. I like not knowing because it means I’m learning and I’ve learned a lot.
The first thing I’ve learned is that being a Professor is real work. From this day forward, if I ever hear anyone say, “those who know do… and those who don’t teach,” I’ll have them give it a try. They have obviously never stepped foot in a classroom full-time. The occasional rock star visit does not come close to staring down a room full of 20 something’s at 8:30 am on Wednesday & Friday mornings in February when it’s 20 below.
It takes real effort to keep students engaged. Effort, planning, follow-up and creativity. Sounds just like any other business.
The second thing I can tell you is the work outside the classroom far exceeds the work inside the classroom. But I’m still new to all this and it has already gotten easier but like any other gig, you get out of it what you put in, so if you’re doing it right, it’s never really easy.
In both courses, I bring in real clients, with real challenges. My approach is to workshop the challenge in a real-world format. It took some adjusting on my part to make this work for students vs. professionals.
It’s one thing to do something your entire career surrounded by pros and another thing entirely to codify it into a syllabus for people who have never done it before.
Another observation I can share is that Skidmore students are smart, with a causal confidence that belies their intelligence and strong work ethic. It’s a unique experience working with these students. Eager to learn and challenge themselves, to push their creativity and put it to work.
Working with creativity as a skill, with a business purpose, changes their ideas about creativity and helps them see it as vitally important, no matter their career choice.
In my courses, students have taken on assignments from organizations such as GE Innovations to Garnet River, an IT Professional Services Firm and Samadhi, Recovery Community Outreach Center.
In my Commercial Production course, we spend the majority of the semester discovering all that is involved in the making of a TV spot; perhaps more contemporarily defined as content. Most of these students had never before produced narrative content, so we invest ourselves in the art of the story, the heroes journey. We examine spots, listen to the words of Directors and Directors of Photography, Casting Agents, Location Scouts, Production Designers and Musicians. We practice concept development and story boarding our concepts. Then we focus our efforts on building production books to catalogue and manage the production. And finally, with approximately 4 weeks remaining in the semester, these Management and Business students get to work on their final assignment.
Their skill level varies but their creativity is strong. Click here if you would like to get a flavor of the experience.
In the books Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and The Master and his Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, the authors explore the workings of the human brain. I think we can use their insights to help build #AHealthierNation, especially if we consider the workings of the Human Brain Vs. Pharma TV Spots.
Both authors point out that our brains are hot wired to detect danger before safety. We detect anger in others before joy. This extends to images and words, even those in abstract of a lived experience. For example, we can detect an angry face in a picture of a crowd of happy people faster than we can detect a happy face in a crowd of angry people. The mention of a word associated with danger, even in absence of that danger in the present lived experience, triggers lightning quick brain activity associated with a threat. This has been studied and documented with MRI data.
Kahneman points out the we live our lives as stories, collections of experiences and memories that ideally come to a happy finale, and this is what we remember. In a particularly interesting chapter, he explores the idea of duration neglect and how as humans, we will willingly endure protracted and difficult experiences if the goal, outcome and future memory would be a positive gain.
One example he explains is that of amnesic vacations. An oversimplification; the duration of a vacation ideally has an effect on its quality. I think we’d all agree that 6 days are better than 3. But if the last day of the 6-day vacation is a poor experience, the overriding memory will be one of an unhappy vacation, despite the duration. This is the peak ending and most dominant lasting memory. For more on this you can watch his TED talk here.
Both of these books are fascinating and entirely different, but with many corollaries that make them worth reading. The Master and his Emissary makes clear the right brain is dominant in the role of detecting the incongruent, new, exciting and dangerous. The left brain is dominant in breaking it down into known bits of lived experience and cataloging it so as to help us detect the new vs the known, different or dangerous. There is a mysterious beauty to the power of this duality and the yin-yang balance that it achieves to help us detect danger and feel safe. You can watch him illustrate this in his TED talk here.
If we apply these findings of the workings of the human brain Vs. Pharma TV spots, it would suggest that ending a commercial with 30 seconds of “fair balance” that rattles off all the negative potential consequences of the therapy is not a good idea if we want people to seek out, consume and adhere to that treatment. What memory are we left with? What is the cumulative effect of these negative associations to the psychology of Americans, to what is now decades of exposure to often potentially life threatening consequences of treatment? We are putting our minds on high alert and then leaving ourselves with negative memories.
The FDA lives a paradox of endorsing the use of effective therapies that are proven safe and at the same time controlling how they are promoted.
The use of Fair Balance was deemed a reasonable solution to keep some checks and balances in the system. One early justification for direct-to-consumer advertising for healthcare products was that it would help make people healthier by helping them recognize health issues and solutions to what is ailing them. That said, I would argue it is not working entirely as hoped. Direct-to-consumer advertising has certainly proven to sell more drugs but is it really helping? Adherence and compliance rates remain terrible. As a nation we are not among the healthiest, despite having the one of the best healthcare systems in the world. I can’t help but feel that there exists an unintended and negative consequence of bombarding our culture with therapy risk profiles instead of more positive educational messages about living a healthy and happy life.
I’m not suggesting that the problems of adherence and compliance have been caused by advertising, they certainly predate it. What I am suggesting is that advertising executed in this way has become just another part of the problem and it’s time to consider alternative approaches that not only make us aware of solutions but improve long-term outcomes for #AHealthierNation.
Advertising is part of the brand experience and nobody wants to experience side-effects, even in the abstract. Patients need to be educated about the potential risks of any treatment and there are other and potentially better ways to provide this learning. Awareness advertising by its very nature employs both reach and frequency to achieve its goal. The persistent drumming of risk factors in combination with how our brains are hot wired to detect risk is a perfect storm. Our abilities to detect risk and the frequency of exposure caused by this type of advertising may be creating strong negative associations with these brands specifically and perhaps more detrimentally, pharmaceutical therapies overall.
On any given night during a TV commercial break it is not uncommon to see 2-3 pharma spots back-to-back. This results in approximately 1.5 minutes of nausea, hives, Arrhythmia, trouble breathing, night sweats, diarrhea, dizziness, life threatening rash, allergic reactions, suicidal thoughts, dry mouth, internal bleeding, increased blood pressure, stroke, liver damage, heart attack and other potential drug-drug and dietary interactions that in rare cases have caused death.
This parade of alarm bells is made no less volatile by the mostly generic visual backdrop of smiling happy people and the sometimes over-qualified claims of efficacy. Remember we’re hot wired to detect risk before all else. How’s that for a side effect? Human Brain Vs. Pharma TV could be a perfect storm of unintended consequences. June 2014 saw the beginning of OpenFDA an effort to make accessible the FDA database of side effects, drug labels, warnings, food recalls. This project is still in Beta but it holds great promise to help us better manage and understand the insights available through this repository and how insights gained across drug and device class can inform #AHealtherNation and perhaps will give us opportunity to create better, more positive and educational TV spots.
As communicators we can do better to create a #AHealthierNation and support our Physicians and other healthcare workers to help us live healthier lives.