Why not use the round wheels of filmmaking?
Changes don't always equal improvements
I'm a fairly conservative guy when it comes to Film Aesthetics. I don't mind people experimenting with the form and trying out new approaches . It is actually required to improve the art-form. What I really don't get though is how some of the world's current directorial hot-shots seem to let style getting in way of their stories. Surely storytelling is what directing is all about?
Yet, several "modern" directors go out of their wits to cram so much spectacle and fancy camerawork in there that it's bound to detract from the story. When watching films with excessive Camera Movements and edits that seem to be made simply to look "cool" I'm just annoyed. Huge vistas, helicopter fly-bys and some incredible effects-work is perfect to make great trailers, but have to be used with care if they're not to hurt the story.
So if it looks cool what's the problem? The problem is it pulls me out of the reality of the story. I dabble a bit with film-stuff myself and am generally interested in the technical side of things. Yet, I find that if a film works I never consciously notice the techniques while watching a film for the first time. (I probably will on second or third viewing). When I notice the filmmakers have failed in my book. It would be like reading a Crime Novel and then starting to think about how the sentences are built or perhaps what a brilliant font they've used.
The Wheel - it really works!
There are of course times when an author wants to attract attention to the language, but this is seldom the case in Thrillers where the narrative is the main focus. The odd bit is that there is a classic, well established language of film that seems to be lost on some contemporary directors. In many ways honed to perfection as early as 1941 with Orson Well's Citizen Kane. The choice of lenses, the lighting, composition and angles are all made to enhance the viewers understanding of the characters' psychological state. The brilliance of this is that it works on a subconscious level. If you want the viewer to empathize with a character you make sure that character is close to the camera and that we see the world through his or her eyes it. When the majority of the camerawork consists of huge battle-scenes shot from afar the viewer will eventually loose interest.
Watch the master
The guy who knows how
The thing that makes the situation even more absurd is the fact that the most successful director of the last 30 years does use this language. Steven Spielberg seems to have an incredible understanding of the psychological value of the camerawork. This is probably the reason why many will have a hard time pointing out what makes his films work so well. Witness the T-Rex attack on the car in Jurassic Park: Almost the entire scene is shot from inside the car. This way we, the audience, can feel the fear and despair experienced by the charcters. This is done despite having the coolest and most expensive animatronic T-rex available. Oh, how tempting it must have been to show off the beast in all its splendour! Yet, Spielberg obviously knew that this would work against the film.
Unfortunately a lot of the younger filmmakers today seem to have missed the point completely. While they are more than willing to let themselves be inspired by the fantastic premises of Spielberg's films the key to great filmmaking seems to elude them...
Time for a sequel
Some of you might remember my post Killer Looks where I sought to illustrate how bad visuals, or more specifically bad Power Point, can destroy even the greatest of speeches. My example seemed to work quite well and I received a fair amount of positive feedback. As the post was also one of the most popular posts I've made, a sequel was inevitable. The thing that irked me about the original was that while it demonstrated the point I was trying to make it was also rather contrived. The Power Point Presentation was designed to be bad and while I've experienced similar examples in real life it did tickle the "do-better"-itch.
The original "Boring Powerpoint" clip
The where- and whats
What if I tried to make a proper presentation to go with the same speech? Would it still detract from JFK's dynamic delivery? To make the experiment more comparable to presentations in the wild I decided not to pull out the big motion-graphics guns. Everything was created in Apple's Keynote which is part of the excellent iWork. The free images were downloaded from FreeFoto.com and npg.gov.
I find it hard to distance myself from my own work and the legendary status of President Kennedy's Inaugural Speech makes it even harder. I am confident that it works okay but Kennedy's charisma is so strong it will always be dificult to improve upon. I'll leave it up to you to decide whether this presentation detracts or ads to the speech...
One of the ideas I was experimenting with in my recent superman-film was the attempt of making the visuals entertaining enough to overcome the world's least passionate voice-over. Based on the feedback I received it seems I had a certain degree of success. I'm sure you'll also agree that well delivered speeches can work brilliantly on their own. I therefore started to ponder the thought: "can a brilliant speech be ruined by poor visuals?"
Powerpoint-presentations are today's most used form of oral-visual presentations. It is also the most loathed one. The last few years have spurred a lot of articles about how Powerpoint is often used in a way that actually lessens the impact of a message, so the answer to my question should be fairly obvious. But how far can you push it? I chose a few seconds from President Kennedy's inaugural address as this is one of the most inspirational speeches made in the last century. Below you can see how it comes across when I've "complimented" the speech with slides from a standard Powerpoint-template.
Edit: I've replaced the original quicktime-file with the YouTube clipTo me the effect is almost unbelievable. I find the 40 seconds or so to be mind shattering dull. Now here's the trick: Try playing the clip again, but with your eyes closed. It's better isn't it? So, if poor visuals can lessen the power of JFK in his prime, then just think what they could do to your average presenter. Does this mean you should just skip the visuals the next time you're making a presentation. Not necessarily. The right visuals can improve the audience's experience and their emotional connection with the material. However, if you're not willing to invest the time and resources to get the visuals right, you're probably better off leaving Powerpoint at home...