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.
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.
Smart clients get smart work. Habitat Clothes is a great client. Hard working, hands-on, head in the clouds with feet on the ground. Visionary and driven with a keen curiosity and willingness to learn and adapt to the changing demands of business, Suzanne Williams is a restless warrior in the battle of building her brand. From our initial conversations about the needs of her business and the impact on the brand, down to the last detail of execution of a product line, Suzanne never loses sight of the larger strategic goals of her company.
The company’s growth trajectory is strong because Habitat are uniquely connected to their customer base. With decades of work under their belts, (pun intended) the Habitat team has an intimate knowledge of what works and what doesn’t work for their customers. This insight allows Habitat to make critical business decisions without a lot of hand-wringing. Retail fashion is a fast moving business that demands constant planning and execution in a never ending cycle of the seasons. Consumer insight is critical to the success of any brand. Customers are constantly on the look-out for solutions to the challenges they face in their lives. Understanding their wants and needs, down to the buttons they prefer, is the basis of a thoughtful process of design decisions, that ultimately comprise a language. This design language is a dialogue between customers and brands that form the basis of trust from which repeat customers are born.
With a fresh look at their strategy, Habitat is poised for continued growth, ready to move from a branded house to a house of brands.
Long before social media, there were photojournalists whose work was shared across traditional media channels. The right instincts, in the right moment, resulted in an image that captured the imagination, documented an event and told a story. A single image seen across all media channels. In today’s parlance, we might say it went viral. A single moment, a single image and a single opportunity to capture that image. Guts, instinct, talent, intuition, anticipation and a passion for the story; these are a few of the key ingredients for a successful photojournalist.
In 1991 my friend and great talent Ira Yoffe, then VP Creative Director at Parade Magazine, invited me to participate in the Eddie Adams Workshop. In 2017 The Eddie Adams Workshop celebrated 30 years of its unique program for photojournalists. This is an intense, four-day gathering of top photography professionals, along with 100 carefully selected students. The workshop is tuition-free, and the students are chosen based on the merit of their portfolios. Nikon has been the workshop’s major sponsor since its inception. I’ve been shooting with Nikon Cameras and lenses most of my life. There is an extraordinary relationship between Nikon and The Eddie Adams Workshop, so I try to support Nikon when I can. I still use many of my original Nikon manual focus lenses for both still and video work, even on other cameras. In the moment of truth, reliability is key.
During the workshop, I was part of the guest faculty sharing my experience and perspective with these young photojournalists. Also on the faculty was the great Duane Michals. I don’t recall exactly what Duane Michals had to say to them, but one can imagine it included trusting their creative instincts.
My message to these young professionals was simple. For the rest of their lives they would have two jobs; making the work and promoting the work.
It is the same for brands; make the brand and promote the brand. Photojournalists make great hires to help execute social media campaigns. Social media is a ready-made channel for photojournalists. When aligned to your brand story and the goals you would like to achieve, the skills of a photojournalist are hard to beat. The work will come from a more authentic, investigative place as opposed to a very prescribed idea of your brand. The immediacy and authenticity of social media is lost when execution becomes entirely mechanical.
Social media is most successful when it balances the organic with the highly orchestrated, this makes a brand both accessible and inspiring.
When considering how to hire for successful social media, think outside the traditional agency box.
When I first started working in the industry, I had a great experience, or I should say, set of experiences, that really enhanced my technical and artistic understanding of film and photography. Where to place the camera is one of the most important decisions we make in the effective telling of a story. When we get it right we create vocal pictures.
I was fresh out of Parsons School of Design and met my friend Kevin O’Callaghan. Kevin is now a prominent instructor at the School of Visual Arts and an industry legend, not only for his excellence as an instructor, but also for his amazing work in 3D illustration, sculpture and art installations. Kevin is what he has always been, a creative genius.
With Kevin I began working creating props and special effects for film and TV. Together we worked on a number of projects, some in conjunction with Dale Malley, at the time one of the country’s leading independent prop makers.
We worked on television spots for Atari, making 3D live-action TV sets that played video games with each other. We crafted giant ice cubes, a giant glass and a giant can for 7Up and built colorful, moving props for BonJour Jeans. We made props for the Rodney Dangerfield film Easy Money and recreated aspects of the Oval office for a film about JF Kennedy with Martin Sheen; we made props for a Mid-Summer Night’s Sex Comedy with Woody Allen, the Flamingo Scooter for the Flamingo Kid with Matt Dillon…the list goes on.
Everything we built, no matter how fantastic, needed to fool the eye, to be real…enough. We had to be convincing in our execution of these props and effects. Some were incredibly authentic to original objects we had been asked to reproduce, others were pure fantasy writ large. This was fun, exciting and interesting work during which I learned a great deal about what the camera will see, or more specifically, what we see and what looks convincing on film. The understanding of how light interacts with various colors, surfaces and structures remain invaluable. The most important aspect of course is that all these aspects are delivering on the intention of the scene and the film as a whole.
The demand for video content and the need to tell brand stories in interesting ways requires first and foremost a great insightful story and then the ability to tell it effectively.
Photography and film is a science of both light and time, the manipulation of these fundamental elements can make or break a piece of content. It’s about what you are filming and how you film it. Where you place the camera and how you light the subject are two of the most important decisions that need to be made.
From my perspective (pun intended), not enough thought and creativity is put into this aspect of video content creation. There is a great deal of stylistic sameness; the industry repeating itself. This works against the differentiation of your brand. The execution of the story should be anchored in the uniqueness of your brand story, not in the latest trend or enabling technology. If you’ve ever watched a video and the production techniques end up being more interesting than the story, you understand the problem.
If the idea is not crystal clear and interesting, then all the slick execution in the world will not make it better.
Brand marks are invested with symbolism; meaning derived from perceived value, ambition and aspiration too. On this 4th of July I thought it would be interesting to start with a consideration of Uncle Sam; a representation of the U.S. Government. The creation and evolution of Uncle Sam is an interesting story about which much has been written. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction but one thing is certain, the illustration created by artist Montgomery Flagg is a hit. This rendering was used to promote the idea of being ready and prepared for war. World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Sadly, there is never really an end to war and persecution and the excuses used to justify it all. Right or wrong, the symbol of Uncle Sam became a call-to-arms which found its inspiration in the 1914 Alfred Leete illustration from England used in a WW I recruitment poster.
Uncle Sam’s better half, known as Columbia, famously depicted by Paul Stahr ca. 1917-18, named to honor the legacy of Columbus, went on to inspire the naming of countless organizations, including Columbia University as well as Columbia pictures, which later took the lovely lady as a symbol of its own. You’ll notice a strong resemblance to Lady Liberty, the grand statue itself a gift to the people of the U.S. from the people of France. The Statue was designed by sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi and built by Gustave Eiffel and dedicated on October 28, 1886.
In the painting of Columbia, we are quite literally taken in by her open arms and compassionate and sincere expression. Columbia was said to represent the people of the Americas. The Statue of Liberty holds a tablet with the Roman inscription of July 4, 1776; testament to our declaration of independence. Broken chains lay at her feet, a beacon for all the world to see, a symbol of independence and freedom at the entrance to NY Harbor. Her torch held high, welcoming immigrants from all over the world. The statue was also inspired by the Roman Goddess, Libertas.
It should not be surprising that women are used to represent openness, liberty and freedom while men are depicted as aggressive, directive and controlling. We are ourselves symbols. Check out the early illustration by Thomas Nast from Harpers Weekly of Uncle Sam having Thanksgiving dinner with immigrants from all over the world, this tells the story of America at its best. The world at its best.
At a time when the U.S. and perhaps much of the rest of the world seem on a path of isolationism, it would do us good to remember the power of symbolism.
America’s most important export is our culture. For centuries, the promise of America has inspired countless millions to risk it all in pursuit of freedom, openness and inclusiveness. We seem to be forgetting, the meaning of America, of liberte’.
What will you export today? Perhaps you can start with a welcoming smile.