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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.