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Every time I take a photo or a video, I am lying.
It might seem that, unless I add some sort of filter or object in front of my lens, I am producing the most accurate truth I can. I am capturing an image, the very visual appearance of the scene in front of me. I can’t think of a bit of evidence that would hold up better in court than a photograph. However, because of how an image is captured, I have to leave something out. I frame my shot to include only what I want to include, and then hit record. My choice of lens, the settings I use, and the location and angle at which I place the camera determine how you will remember my subject.
Of course, this brief process of deciding what I think is important has to happen simply because of how photography works; the camera can only record a limited area in front of it, although some new cameras, such as the Bublcam, are able to record in a full 360 degrees. But even then, you’re dealing with the extreme distortion and depth inherent in such a wide field of view. Photographers generally accept that, on a full-frame camera, a 50mm lens gives the most “normal” image, meaning that it most closely mimics how we see things with our eyes. Wider-angled lenses typically evoke more of an energetic feeling, while longer lenses often feel more private or personal. I can capture a darker image, or one with a more greenish tone. I can add more motion blur or increase my shutter speed and make the movement feel sharper. There are so many things I can do as a photographer to alter and narrow down how an image looks, so much so that when the final product comes out for all to see, it is only a sliver of the total reality that was in front of me.
I’m speaking more as a videographer than as a filmmaker, since that is what I know more. I have made scripted narrative promo videos and little short films, and those are very specifically planned out and shot. Many times there’s a set, and that set is dressed specifically for certain camera shots. If it’s not going to be on camera, why bother dressing it up? So in those cases, there actually isn’t much of a reality beyond the scope of what you see. But when I’m shooting a wedding or getting unscripted B-roll of someone working in a shop, I have the entire world open to me. Yes, there are some logical restrictions that narrow down what may be relevant to the event I’m shooting, but in reality, the whole world is a set. Very rarely will I stage anything in a wedding film, for example. About 98% of what you see is natural action, naturally captured. But how I have captured it will dictate how you feel about it. If I add a lot of motion and use wide lenses, the film will probably be more energetic and youthful. If I use longer lenses and static shots, or shots with more minimal, organic movement, it will feel more intimate, like you’re on the outside of the action looking in. Peeking over the fence at a scene, instead of on the yard running around with the characters.
What all of this means, practically, is that, because decisions need to be made about what to capture, and not everything CAN be captured, you need to decide quickly what is important. You need to know your subject beforehand so that, when the day comes and you’re suddenly hit with a literally endless supply of angles, textures, and details to choose from, you will be able to get the shots that tell your story best. I totally get that off-the-cuff moments happen and beautiful, serendipitous interactions may just pop up and you want more than anything at that moment to capture them, and you should. But in general, I feel that you should go into a project, whatever it is, knowing the kind of story you want to tell. You should know if this couple is lively and funny, or if they’re mature and reserved, and then choose your shots to complement that. I’m very much still learning how to implement this way of thinking into my work, and I often get caught up in the moment and revert back to how I’ve shot so many things. I can almost always get a pretty shot, but I want to take my work beyond simply “pretty” and mold it into “beautifully appropriate”. I wouldn’t run around a funeral with a steadicam rig, even though it may give me a dramatic and “beautiful” shot of the building, because that kind of shot probably isn’t appropriate for a funeral video! Have I ever done a funeral video? No. But if I did, I wouldn’t run around with a steadicam.
My point is, figure out what the vibe of your story is, the emotion that you want your viewers to leave with, and then do your best to get THAT across. Be selective and intentional about what you shoot. And just keep doing that. When I shoot a wedding, I’m almost never resting. I am either getting a shot, looking at light and what’s in the space to see where I should shoot, or watching people to gauge their emotions and try to anticipate what’s coming up next. You’d be surprised how accurately you can get in position for a shot when you take the time to notice patterns.
Every picture is a lie by virtue of omission, and it is your job (and mine) to intelligently decide what part of the bigger picture becomes recorded as the “truth” of that event.
Like I said, I’m still learning this, and it can be hard to do, especially when time is of the essence (and really, when is time NOT of the essence?) You can still get your wides, mediums, and tights and keep to a style of shooting, so the next time you get the chance, try it out! I hope you’ll start to see more intention in my work, and I would love to see some of yours! Cheers!
Sound design. Until recently, when I thought about sound design, I basically just thought of feature films and foley work. It was something that professional filmmakers did to enhance the drama in a scene. You know, adding the sound of boots clunking down a dark hallway, or a deep whooshing sound to emphasize the main sail on a ship being unrolled at the start of an adventure. These sounds can go largely unnoticed, but they do exactly what they’re supposed to do; they focus you emotionally. With the last few weddings I’ve done, especially, I have realized how important a role sound design plays in editing a film. Or any event or dramatic production. The audio portion dictates how you feel. Period.
To illustrate this point, try watching any of my wedding videos with the sound muted, but with this song playing in the background.
It’s terrifying, sad, and creepy all at the same time! That song is beautiful, and it would work great in the right context (such as the movie for which it was created), but here it does not work. Now, try watching the same wedding video with this song playing.
Even if the edits don’t line up, it’s already infinitely happier and fun than the previous song (which makes sense, given the songs’ names). The same test could be done with sound effects. Certain sounds, at certain volumes, in certain places, evoke certain emotions. This is very important.
I may film a wedding where I have two audio clips I can use: One is the sound of people laughing and joking around, and the other is of a baby crying as its diaper is getting changed in the other room. Both sounds were recorded on the same day, and they are both technically true to the events of the day. However, when I sit down to edit the film, I have to decide what the story really is, and what elements best support it. Unless that baby was an important part of the day, or was actually Benjamin Button as a groomsman, I will probably not include it. This, of course, is not a hard and fast rule, but an example of using the correct sounds to enhance the feelings and emotions that need to come across. For many people, the sound of a baby crying is more stressful than soothing.
In my opinion, 90% of the emotion in a film of any kind comes from the sound. This includes music, sound effects, and ambient sound. I separate sound effects and ambient sound because there’s a difference between a basketball bouncing and a breeze blowing through trees. I think of sound effects as more punctuating an action, whereas ambient sounds mostly live in the background. Until this last year, I hadn’t paid much attention to the sound effects and ambiance in my soundtracks. I love editing to music, though, because it is able to carry my visuals so well. One of my favorite parts of editing is picking out the music! And I feel that I’ve gotten pretty good at finding music that fits the couples with whom I’ve worked. However, until recently, my focus has been much more on the visual part of their story.
I love shooting details. There are so many more options for shots when you move in close and separate objects and people from each other. They also feel more intimate and help you feel like you’re in there with the people. And although wide shots are necessary, I feel that they can get boring because they are “safe”. You’ve got the whole scene in frame, and everything is equally represented. But because of this, wide shots can be anything but “safe”. Nothing gets special treatment; no focus. And this brings me back to the audio. In the past I have been content just letting the music carry my edit. Although this has provided a good feeling throughout the video, it lacked focus.
Music has been my auditory “wide shot”.
It sets the tone for the film. It gives you an emotional overview of the world you’re entering, and that’s important. Just as a wide shot gives context to a scene, music gives context to the emotion in a scene. But you need those tight shots to help people focus on what matters! Bringing to the forefront the laughter, the clothes rustling, the doors opening and closing, the sniffles, the cheers, and the whispered vows leads the viewer to a place where they can feel the joy and anticipation, too.
Video is informational, but the audio drives it home.
I get disappointed when I see some wedding videos that start off with a great sound bite, but then the rest of the video is just a montage of pretty shots set to music. I feel like there had to be more to their day than just smiling for the camera, so why wasn’t it used? Well, I know the answer to that question, from my own experience. Either the videographer didn’t have the necessary equipment to get good-quality audio, or they were lazy in the editing. Both of these have, at times, been the case for me in the past, but since I’ve realized how crucial my audio is, I’ve been much more aware of it. And I’ve planned for it, and I’ve consciously chosen music that doesn’t get in the way of my sound bites and other audio “close-ups”.
So basically, here’s my point:
Skimping out on sound design is like getting a White Castle slider instead of grilling up some homemade burgers with friends. Yes, they are both technically burgers (I guess), but one will leave you much more satisfied. And probably with fewer trips to the bathroom.
One of my favorite quotes regarding storytelling is this:
“Care about your subjects! Tell their story as if you’re the last person who will get that chance.”
Take a look around you. There are hundreds of things and people around you. There are shadows and highlights. Smells and textures. As you go through your day, do you think about many of these things in detail? Do you zero in on a certain aspect of your life because you expect to be intrigued by something you previously took for granted?
I started doing that in 2005, when I realized that everything looks different, if you take the time to look. Watch a patch of grass for more than a few seconds, and you will start to see an entire culture of tiny creatures and structures, where you used to just see something to walk on. Follow along with a plastic bag as it gets tossed around by the breeze from passing cars, and it becomes a great adventure to see if it will get to safety. The same idea goes with people. When you allow other things to fall away so that you can really listen to a person’s story, you get a whole new appreciation for who they are. You get invested in them, because they aren’t just part of the ambiance of the job or park or school where we spend so much of our time. Good or bad, pleasant or treacherous, their story allows you to connect more intimately with them. I want to listen to, and tell these stories.
Everything looks different when you care to look.