Setting the Scene
Have you ever wondered why certain paintings endure for centuries and become priceless, while others end up at garage sales?
Art critics agree that the difference hinges on an elusive element called artistic talent.
Although talent is hard to define, we do know that it goes far beyond a familiarity with the basic elements of the medium — in this case paint, brushes and canvas — to an ability to use the medium to create an emotional experience in the viewer.
In video production an understanding of cameras, lenses, etc., is fundamental. But those who never get beyond this basic understanding, as essential as that might be, never distinguish themselves. At best, they will be considered good technicians.
We can make an analogy to musical performances. There are many people who can "get all the notes right." But, if the performance lacks heartfelt interpretation (emotion), we feel that something is missing, especially if we have an opportunity to hear someone who can interpret and "put themselves into" the same music.
Form vs. Content
A scene can be well exposed, in sharp focus, have perfect color balance, and be well lit (i.e., have good form) and still be empty of emotional meaning and impact (be void of meaningful content).
If a scene in a production is striking, dramatic, or humorous, we will tend to overlook minor technical weaknesses. This leads us to the following:
In other words, the intended message of a production is more important than things such as technical excellence or flashy embellishments.
At the same time, significant technical problems — poor sound, a jittery camera, or a lens going in and out of focus — will quickly divert attention away from the message: the content.
When production elements call attention to themselves, either because they are poor or because they are ostentatious, attention is shifted away from content. This is especially true in dramatic television.
If the content is predictable or somewhat pedestrian in nature, a director may try to hold audience attention by deluging viewers with visual effects. This practice is common in some music videos, where there is competition to come up with ever-more-bizarre and far-out effects.
TV series such as CSI use visual effects to embellish content; but the major emphasis is on the story line and, of course, the "chemistry" between principal characters.
In a series such as Friends, one of the most popular sitcoms of all time, content alone carries the series, and there is almost never a need for visual effects. (Friends aired its last episode in May 2004, but reruns will undoubtedly be broadcast for many years.)
A Director Directs Attention
Although we generally assume that the term "director" refers to the person's role in directing (steering) the work of production personnel, the term actually has a more important meaning: one who directs the attention of viewers.
In this role the director moves from form into content and centers on skillfully and creatively using the tools of the medium to regularly direct the audience's attention to critical aspects of the message.
In a sense, the director is a kind of "tour guide" for viewers.
Insert Shots and Cutaways
A director will use an insert shot, to call attention to something significant within the basic scene. This shot -- generally a close-up -- highlights details of something that may not have been apparent in the wider shot. Note photos below.
Good tour guides also help people understand things by adding significant information along the route. Good directors do the same. This could be considered a cutaway shot — cutting away from the central scene to bring in related material.
For example, while covering a parade, a director might cut away to a shot of a baby sleeping peacefully in a stroller. Or a sequence showing buyers in a busy marketplace in the Philippines might cut away to a shot of a child watching it all as shown in the photo on the right.
Enhancing the Message
A major role for production tools is to enhance, amplify, or explain the message.
Music is a production tool when it enhances the atmosphere, tips us off to danger, or sets the mood for romance.
As we will see, lighting can suggest a cheerful atmosphere or a dark, dim, and seedy environment. Sets and props can do the same; plus, in a dramatic production they can tell us a great deal about characters — even before we meet them.
An example of this is an atmosphere introduction, a technique where a director tips us off to important things about characters by introducing us first to their surroundings.
Contrast the setting shown here with starting a dramatic production with a slow pan across a bright, immaculate, airy penthouse garnished with ultramodern furniture and paintings. What does each say about the people involved?
There is a saying in videography and film:
Let's say you are doing a documentary on air pollution. You could talk about how bad things are, or you could simply cut to a scene like this.
Since what people see on TV typically carries much more of an impact than what they hear, you are much better off showing things rather than talking about them.
In a sense, all of the things we've been discussing can be included in the general term, composition (the elements that comprise a scene). However, for the remainder of this section we'll concentrate on a narrower and more traditional definition of the term.
Composition can be defined as the orderly arrangement of elements in a scene which, when taken as a whole, conveys intent and meaning. (How's that for a genuine textbook-type definition?)
Television production involves both static composition and dynamic composition.
Static composition covers the content of fixed images, such as paintings or still photos.
Dynamic composition goes a step further and takes into consideration the effect of time — moment-to-moment change. This change can be within a single shot (including camera or talent moves), or it can apply to the sequence of scenes created through editing.
By studying the most enduring and aesthetically pleasing paintings over the centuries, as well as the most effective film and video scenes during the past 50 years, certain artistic principles emerge.
Why not take an afternoon and go to a traditional art gallery and see if you can draw some conclusions for yourself, or study some films that have won awards for cinematography.
Guidelines, Not Rules
Even though the principles that have emerged for good composition may seem clear, they should always be considered guidelines and not rules.
Composition is an art and not a science.
If composition were totally a science, it could be dictated by a fixed set of rules and would end up being rigid and predictable, without room for creativity.
Since composition is in part an art, the guidelines can occasionally be broken. But when they are it's generally by someone who understands the principles and recognizes how, in the interest of greater impact, they can be successfully transcended.
When most individuals break the guidelines, it's because they are not "visually savvy." The results speak loud and clear: weak, confusing and amateurish-looking work.
With all this as a background in the next module we'll look at some specific guidelines for composition.
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