Want to be a better photographer or videographer or comic book artist? Watch a prime time network drama tonight and turn the sound off.
I was waiting for a table at a restaurant recently and found myself analyzing five minutes of the opening of “NCIS: Los Angeles” that was playing on the TV in the bar. I found it fascinating.
The episode started off with a black car turning a corner, driving down a dark alleyway, and then turning into a parking lot. (At that point, a gang of thugs carjacked and killed the driver, but that’s beyond the point right now.) How would you, as a director, shoot that? It’s a simple shot, right? It only needs to take 10 or 15 seconds. It’s a car making two turns and driving through a gate.
But the sequence cut away every other second, used at least six different angles (straight in front, low and wide, high and far away, etc.), not all of them moving, and nearly gave me a headache. It’s a sequence I wouldn’t have thought twice about if I were watching it from the couch at home. With the sound cues, it would have almost seemed mundane. But watching just for the visuals and how the director and editor intercut them was instructive. First of all, did you realize how fast camera angles move today? I mean, I make the MTV Era jokes all the time, and we all complained about “Armageddon” being hacked-and-slashed without a single 3 second take anywhere in the movie. But it’s even more pervasive than that, and I don’t think we realize it or think about it. We just accept it now and think nothing of it, but in the name of style, were all those cuts necessary? Yes, a couple of them were, just because we needed to see the larger scene and, in one case, a person jumping over the fence from the car’s blind spot.
It went past that. What about talking heads scenes? There’s a rhythm with those that you usually associate with the dialogue. Each time a new person speaks, you cut to them, right? And how much of them do you show? Head and shoulders? Head only? Extreme close up, cutting off the top of the heads?
Watch the eye lines and how they match up. Make sure the characters don’t violate the 180 degree rule. Why might the camera linger on one person when the other starts talking? Why a two shot? Why not pull the camera back in the middle of a conversation, or why not?
I only half-watched ten minutes of the show and these are the things I started asking myself. I wasn’t asking what lens the camera had on in front of it. I wasn’t thinking about the brand of expensive rental equipment they were using. I was curious about light sources — where they’re placed, how they eliminate shadows, how much of the movement in the scene was blocked out to land actors in the lighting sweet spots created by a bevy of lights just out of camera.
While all of these things apply to video, they can also be instructive for stills. Think about the single shots you take. Why did you choose a wide angle or a telezoom? Did you include the environment in the picture? Are you telling a story in a sequence of shots, or are you trying to get it all in one? How does the angle of your shot affect the impact the picture will have on the viewer?
If you’re tired of looking at pictures on Flickr, just go to iTunes or Hulu or even YouTube and watch a few minutes of some slick highly-produced modern dramatic narrative. Turn the sound down. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll see. And perhaps inspired.
Addendum: Is there a parallel in watching video without sound to processing color photos to black and white? If removing colors removes distraction and unappetizing color clashes, does removing the sound from a video result in more attention being paid to the motion (because you don’t get the audio cues) or the story? Just thinking out loud today…