Thoughts While Finishing up a Project and Getting Ready for the Next One.

From: A series of interviews about LBJ.

When I read about an epiphany of one photographer or another in regard to their newly found love of video it always seems as though the protagonists need to disavow traditional photography in order to sally forth on their new moving pictures quest. It's almost like everyone needs to mythologize a mystical transition in which they are moved to discover a higher power of communication. A creative growth spurt. These new Jedi Masters of video talk in terms of framing things beautifully; of capturing the beautiful light; of using the images to tell the story. Yawn...

The presumption that clings to these epiphanal transformations is that everyone who makes the journey has started out as a still photographer and have only just made the jump to video since the days of digital made everything possible in a camera of which one already had possession. The shorthand conceptualization seems to be that the new practitioner has made the jump from one liners to, at least, fully fleshed out essays. And that's where I have a problem. 

I have never really considered myself to be a visual person. My early impulses to pick up a camera were not because I felt something artistic that needed to be examined and shared but because I had a series of beautiful girlfriends whom I needed to photograph as a way of making notes for future story ideas, a cataloging of virtues. It was a way of remembering details that less lazy writers may have accomplished just as well with a stack of notecards. 

When I worked in advertising I wrote advertising copy. Our agency was fairly small, only 25 people or so. That meant that I was pressed into service writing not only magazine and newspaper ads but also television commercial scripts and radio commercial scripts. My early training with motion was in the service of advertising. In those days (and maybe to this day) the writer went along on the production of TV commercials in case a quick script change was needed. Or in case a clarification was required concerning the creative idea.

Writing commercials and then supervising them became a circular learning opportunity. You learned what dialogue rang true and you learned how well, or poorly, your creative ideas translated into visual plays. In the 1980's we felt the need to get stuff just right either in pre-production or during rehearsal for a number of reasons. The primary reason being that 35mm or 16mm film stock,  along with development, cost real money. Every minute of shooting required crew, and investment in spoilable, one time use, resources. We would actually mould and re-mould the stories we were trying to tell as actors read the lines. It was the language that mostly drove the commercials. The concepts bolstered by the words...

Sometime in the last two years I made a somewhat conscious decision to circle back into motion productions. Video. But I have to confess I don't see things in terms of great shots or wonderful transitions or beautiful light. I see faces and emotions and expressions and I free associate about each person's backstory or the story of the character they are playing in the moment. For me it's about the relationships, the nuance of personality and the interplay. Not the beautiful frame or "the story." 

It's both a handicap and a blessing. I think I have to work harder than my peers to cobble together a pleasing frame. In the same way I am constantly trying to learn how to better compose stills when my natural intention is just to center everything up and spend every moment watching the eyes and the expressions of my subjects. I envy (to a limited degree) the people who seem to be able to relegate their subjects to the status of visual elements. But I seem incapable of doing that, just as I am incapable of the invisible mental tactic of composing in thin air for a square or specific crop and then duplicating the same thought during the post production.

I've circled into video and yet I find myself captivated by the experience of the spoken word and the script, and the actors' interpretations of their scripts, to a far greater degree than I am drawn into the look or the costumes, or the styling, or framing up the shot. Lighting to me is an accessory to story telling. It sets the mood and is part of the creation of the mix of expressions and intellectual or emotional intensity that moves a visual play forward. My eye doesn't linger on the great shot. 

 There is one reason I like to shoot video at least as much as I like to shoot still images. That's because the video gives my mind action to follow while a still image allows me to stop, linger and then move on. The video moves through time. The still resides in memory. 

Both skills have their value. The photo makes a direct tattoo on the memory (if it's any good) while the video entertains the mind (and the more basic emotional responses) but the story trumps the imagery. Even if the imagery is beautiful. 

Today I tried to edit a video that had no narration or on camera speech. No words. No sounds. The client will use it at a huge, noisy trade show and the sound was deemed to be un-useful. The client requested that we just cut the whole project as a silent, stand alone piece. A series of interlinked images moving through time; selling a product or a combination of products. I don't know why but the silence paralyzed me and left me a bit bewildered. I grabbed a lively bit of music and put it under the video time line. Once I had a rhythmic beat in place I could figure out the way the video should be cut. I figure I can always throw away the music bed when I deliver the final, approved video. 

But my paralysis made me realize that the brain has to be satisfied over time, in a different way, to create images that move. Being a writer makes video more alluring because it makes use of narrative and the passage of time; same mindset as writing. Being an (admittedly) unstructured artist makes video less alluring because it requires a structure and an attention to detail that I seem to be better suited marshaling in distinct spurts. Like the making of individual photographs. And all at once I feel like I am stuck somewhere on the middle of the continuum. Not in one camp or the other. Not I ever have to make a choice. It's the burden of being enamored of expressions and the promise of back stories in a world that values the perfect construction and lots of sparkle. Darn.


Anonymous said...

Sometimes I am speechless after reading one of your posts. This one of those times.

Anonymous said...

I made my first motion pictures way before this latest trend of the last few years, too, and I have come with a conclusion that convergence and multitasking don't really work, or at least don't work as well as we sometimes think.

In fact, that's one of the reasons I have also given up on the idea of having a perfect camera for both stills and video within the same body a long time ago. It's okay to have one camera dedicated for each task, and perhaps another hybrid as a backup for both, because you won't (shouldn't) be doing both at the same time, anyway.

Maybe you don't have to choose between being a photographer or a cinematographer, but you cannot be both at the same time. Not if you wish to be any good at either one. Or if you wish your results to be as good as they can. Choose to be one or the other at any given gig, not both. Or have an assistant for the other.

Stills and motion pictures are related forms of art, and yet different enough in their visual language, their ways of delivering emotion, narration and the story, that you need to delve into either one at one time.

If we insist on trying to do both at the same time and with the same mindset, both will suffer, and the results are likely to be mediocre. That may be enough for a simple corporate video, but not much more than that.

I know that 'hybrid' is the trend and there are loud advocates out there propagating the formula, even calling themselves hybrid heroes or whatever, but that's not my cup of tea. It may be a passing trend, I don't like the workflow, and the results aren't satisfactory to me. I'd rather be either-or, one a a time. Even if it means I won't be making as much money as I could. Or maybe my internal wiring is a bit too different for that.

As for making a piece without sound, that's a cool challenge and an opportunity for learning, isn't it. They say that one should watch popular movies without sound, as a learning tool.
That's also what the early filmmakers had to work with, until the late 20's. Their stories needed to have an entirely different narrative and visual cues to compensate for the absence of one key element. Maybe not as easy as it first sounds, for those of us who can take sound and images for granted. It's not quite the same as a series of photos, either, is it.

Good luck with your next projects. Whether that involves a photographer's vest of a director's chair.

John Meredith said...

Interesting thoughts. Chimes with the sense I have that photography, of all kinds, is fundamentally an illustrative art. Very rare the photographic image (even moving ones) that can stand alone the way a great oil painting can.

MartinP said...

Rhythm and editing . . ?

Something like this perhaps...


Keep up the good work :o)

rexdeaver said...

I am enamored of merging moving and still pictures together with music and graphics to tell a story.

amolitor said...

It is so nice to see someone out there, someone with some serious skills, talking about content. So many self-styled photographers go on and on about The Light! The Light! You must learn to Master The Light, like some sort of obnoxious, boring, Jedi.

Light matters, of course. But not as much as something interesting to stick in the frame.

Anonymous said...

Always shoot for the edit. You write the scenario/script and you direct from behind the camera. So it should be fairly easy for you to cut your shots and sequences together. Story boards are useful...

You can't make chicken soup if you forgot to buy chicken.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments on video content, Kirk. After transitioning into video last year and learning all the new disciplines (a work in progress, still.....)I have continually been surprised at my fascination with the challenge of capturing great audio. This has of course two components (at a minimum), the quality of the capture and the quality of the content. Being a photographer I found the lighting and framing much less of a challenge, and though I still struggle with motion and framing it is audio which both fascinates and frustrates. Audio seems to be the story, or at least its foundation, and whether it be the subjects speaking, voice-over or music track, it is the content which all else provides support.
And regarding an earlier post which suggested you cannot do both photography and cinematographer, I strongly disagree. I've too many examples which refute such claims.
Good luck on your transitional journey, and enjoy the ride.
~ Ron

James Pilcher said...

I stand on the shore with my hand on my heart, motionless, as I watch you sail away.

Good luck wherever your adventures take you.

Anonymous said...

"And regarding an earlier post which suggested you cannot do both photography and cinematographer, I strongly disagree."

That's not what I suggested earlier.
To quote certain Mr. Tuck who writes a blog, "people don't read too good."