Judging by the current energetic online conversation around ‘cinematography’ it seems great visual imagery can be measured in the shallowness of the depth of field and the extremeness of the colour grade. Spend too much time on blogs, forums, websites and twitter feeds around the art of the moving image camera and you could be forgiven for thinking that narrative experience is the sum total of f-stops, highlight roll-off and blurriness of bokeh.
Take a long hard look at the photographs below from UK creatives The Wade Brothers. There is more cinematic narrative experience in these still photographs than most any dozen short and feature films you will see in recent years.
I’m not one for venerating nostalgia, generally believing as I do that nostalgia is a form of nihilism. But I will say that lately we seem to be losing a visual sophistication in our visual narratives.
Whenever any particular ‘technique’ becomes synonymous with a desirable ‘style’, or worse that a particular ‘style’ becomes a by-word for what is, or is not, ‘cinematic’, we have a problem. The moment we start thinking and believing that shallow depth-of-field is ‘more dramatic’, that anamorphic is ‘more cinematic’, that natural lighting is ‘more desirable’, or any other similar notion, we have traded the rigor of creative ideas for a dull binary absolutism. This kind of thinking and language is invariably reductionist, it reduces cinema to verbose notions of visual good and bad, right and wrong.
So in that light, look long and hard at the rich engagement contained in the images above. Too often we hear the simplistic expressions about it’s “the story that matters”. But this is rarely more than vague lip-service devoid of any deeper engagement about what ‘story’ actually means let alone how to deliver on the promise of ‘story’.
In order the elevate the conversation I propose 5 conversation topics to pose BEFORE any discussion of camera type, sensor size, f-stop, ISO or shutter speed.
Contrast - Not lighting contrast or dynamic range, but rather the contrast of ideas. Where are the Bisociations, the bringing together of things that don’t belong? Were does the Familiar and the Foreign intersect? Where is the nexus point between things the audience recognize and the things they don’t? Wherever there is conceptual contrast of ideas in an image this is where audience interest, motivation and intrigue will lie.
Conflict - Where are the forces in opposition? Where does the image pose friction points? Where is there danger and drama In the image? Where does the visual space embody stakes and risks?
Dramatic questions - What questions are saliently posed by the image and What questions are the audience forced to ask themselves based on what they see. Does the image suggest these dramatic questions with the word “Will…” ‘Will’ naturally implies and action and stakes. Will X be able to do Y or else Z….?
Intrigue - What exists in the image that generates mystery? What arrangements of light, space and subject prompt questions that are unanswered? Mystery leads to Speculation and Speculation makes your audience active. When they are prompted to speculate they are engaged in mental proactivity about what might be…. How does the image make the viewer ask “what happens next?” or “what just happened?”
Complexity - How does the visual frame and its arrangement of objects and ideas avoid or contravene simplistic assumptions? How does the image force the viewer to question themselves or the true nature of what they are seeing? How does the presentation of the frame contradict itself or invest complexity into what might otherwise be ordinary?
It’s time to elevate the conversation around the art of shooting Narrative Imagery. Exposure, sensors, camera types, dynamic range, bokeh, depth-of-field, ISO, lens, lighting, focus, shutter speed and frame rate - these are all Tools… Powerful, complex and fascinating tools. But a tool serves a purpose and the purpose is to deliver on the 5 elements above. Work out how you want to deliver on these 5 elements and you’ll be in a good place to make the right choice about which tool to use. Choose the tool first, or reduce the conversation to simplistic binaries and banal mechanics, and you’ll leave yourself short-changed in your ability to deliver on the promise of the narrative image.
These still photographs are also part of an evocative moving image sequence project called Room 107.