Cinematic storytelling from PCB3

Today I attended a great session at Podcamp Boston 3 for beginning and intermediate media makers. David Tames, a documentary film maker, gave a presentation titled “Improving Your Video Using Cinematic Language Techniques.” This is a long post, so I’ll place my full write-up after the jump.

Oh, and happy birthday, Jean!

Tamés began by stating that anyone making online videos can use the conventions of cinematic grammar. “You can apply this hundred-year-old language to your videoblog,” or to any online video. He added that even still photographs can use this language in, for example, creating sequences of still photographs, or creating photographs that tell a story. Cinematic techniques evolved “in a sophisticated sense” in the 1920s, said Tamés.

One of his basic points was that the techniques that you, as a videographer, use are important. One key issue is whether you are in control of your tools, or out of control. Whether or not you care about high production values, the techniques you use convey a message, and it’s important to be aware of that. Specific techniques have the potential for sending messages to the viewer.

Tamés also maintained that there is a tension between art and design. In art, he said, expression is primary and it is fine if some viewers don’t understand, whereas in design the primary intent is communicating something.

How important are production values? Tamés said that “we are redefining what production values are,” and how important they are. A good story always trumps high production values. In online video, authenticity and sincerity are extremely important; as an example, he mentioned the rough video footage that was used to create the documentary “This Is What Democracy Looks Like.” However, sound is always important. “Sound is half the picture,” he said. “If you can’t hear i,t you’re literally missing half the picture.”

When it comes to the cinematic language, Tamés asserted that “you know the rules [of cinematic language] because you were raised on them.” We all have seen enough video and film to have excellent cinematic “reading” skills. The next step is to raise our cinematic “writing” skills up to our reading skills.

However, “context is so important,” Tamés said. Context includes where is the video being shown, who the intended audience is, and so on. Context can change how the video is perceived.

Tamés listed several fundamental elements of the cinematic language:

  • Camerawork, including movement, composition, selective focus. This can be very important because we are attuned to movement, e.g., changes in camera angles
  • Sound can help to establish the mood, set the scene, evoke the place. Additionally, “getting good intelligible dialogue is critically important”
  • Lighting
  • Production design includes “everything that’s in front of the camera” from the clothes people are wearing, to everything in the picture
  • Editing is a huge topic, but basically it’s about keeping the viewer’s attention; cutting and pace and rhythm in video is very much like music, and some editors use the technique of editing to music
  • Titles even simple minimalist white-on-black titles communicate something
  • Effects
  • Subject matter is (obviously) the most important element of cinematic language
  • Attitude, e.g., in a videoblog, the person’s individual attitude comes through; but every video has an attitude

Production values are also a part of cinematic language. Tamés gave examples of Web-based shows with high and low production values. Steve Garfield’s videoblog exemplifies a “point and shoot aesthetic” that has “low production values but high authenticity.” Moblogic, which uses a journalistic style, is well-produced, while retaining authenticity. is “well-produced but not over-produced.”

Tamés showed some sample videos that he had produced. In one, he pointed out a cinematic convention: when we see “trippy music and images flashing by,” he said, we recognize that as a transition or introduction to a new section of the video, “like period at the end of a sentence, or a paragraph.” There are many such conventions, such as the off-screen interviewer who acts as a sort of guide for the viewer in a documentary piece.

For those who wish to pursue the topic in more depth, Tamés recommended the following books:

  • The Digital Filmmaking Handbook by Ben Long and Sonja Schenk
  • Secrets of Videoblogging by Michael Verdi, Ryanne Hodson, Diana Weynand, and Shirley Craig
  • Cinematic Storytelling by Jennifer van Sijll — aimed primarily at writers, but excellent for anyone wanting to learn about the topic
  • Editing Techniques with Final Cut Pro by Michael Wohl — although it’s out of print and aimed at a specific software package, Tamés said this book gives an excellent introduction to editing

The PowerPoint slides for this presentation are available here on Tamés’s Web site.