You Still Have to Communicate Visually

I've seen something on television over the past couple of years that bothers me, and I've been trying to figure out if it's really a problem, or if I'm just old school.
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How does that saying go: "I'm not getting better, I'm just getting older?"

I've seen something on television over the past couple of years that bothers me, and I've been trying to figure out if it's really a problem, or if I'm just old school.

There's a morning news show I watch that's targeted at an alternative audience. There must be something attractive about it, because I'm watching it in spite of the fact I'm not part of their target audience. They have a Steadicam or some pole-mounted camera or some-such and they do bumps in and out of commercial breaks with it. Most of the time when they use it bumping in and out of breaks, it's set at a lower frame rate. I'm no expert about this, but it's probably about 8 or 10 fps. It's definitely noticeable.

I have no problem with using that lower frame rate going in and out of breaks. It might not be my choice of shot, but I think it's part of the look and feel of the show, and it works.

But sometimes that same camera, at the same lower frame rate, is intercut with other 30 fps cameras for regular parts of the show. For instance, on an irregular basis, they have animals live on the set, and while the other cameras used for the segment are shooting at 30 fps, about half the time, this camera is shooting at the odd, slower frame rate.

This is jarring. I'm trying to watch a segment on an eel swimming around in an on-set tank, and every time they cut to that camera, it's jarring. To me, it's no different than if they had one camera way out of color balance; it just doesn't belong intercut with the other cameras.

THE REST OF THE STORY

In college, I studied how to make films, and one of the textbooks we used was Joseph Mascelli's "Five Cs of Cinematography: Motion Picture Filming Techniques." Making up those five Cs, in addition to camera angles, cutting, close-ups and composition is the subject of continuity.

Before I ever thought about getting involved in the television business, I think I became a fledgling expert on the subject of continuity. Apparently, when episodic Westerns were shot for TV, at least while I was growing up, they did a bunch of shots of the good guys riding in pursuit of the bad guys, and used those stock scenes for chase sequences in show after show. (I've been told for this stock footage to work show after show, the good guys always had white hats, the bad guys, black hats.)

The editors were very careful in the way they intercut a horseback chase scene. If the sequence started out right to left, they kept moving right to left until the good guy bull-dogged or roped the bad guy off his horse. But during those chase sequences, my guess is that because the editors had only so many second-unit shots to choose from, they couldn't always build a perfectly continuous sequence. You would see one shot where the good guy was just a couple of seconds away from catching the bad guy, cut to the next shot they were seven or 10 seconds apart.

This bothered me. Though I know now that the continuity was screwed up, I didn't know back then what the problem was. They were closer, then further away, then closer again, and it took me away from following the show. I think that's the same thing that happens when the production crew on that alternative newscast intercuts the low frame-rate camera with the normal, 30 fps cameras.

That this low frame-rate shooting happens one day and not the next tells me that this whole matter is probably a lot lower on somebody else's give-a-damn scale than it is on mine, and that in general they don't know if they should do it or not. Since to my way of thinking, the low frame-rate shooting does work for bumping in and out of breaks, you don't want to glue the switch into the 30 fps position. I think a manager just wants to make sure there's a rule about when to use it and when not to, and stick to it.

(There's a saying that goes: "What gets watched gets done." If a new rule like the one suggested above is established, and then no one in management pays any attention to it, you'll lose twice. First, you won't accomplish what that rule was put in place to fix, and second, no one will figure you're going to enforce the next rule, either.)

For the past 20 years and more, MTV videos have broken all the rules of continuity, sometimes to great effect. So how do you know what works and what doesn't when it comes to a newscast? The network evening newscasts are very conservatively done, as are most regular affiliate newscasts. But the show I've been talking about is an alternative kind of newscast. What works there?

I've got a model to suggest. Take a look at "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" on MSNBC. They do a lot of camera swinging around on a jib arm or stabilizer, a lot of things you wouldn't see on network newscasts, but it all seems to work.

I think they've put a lot of thought into what works and what doesn't, and they've come up with a rocky-rolly show that appeals to the MTV-engrained audience that still communicates. In general, they go a little crazy in their transitions, but settle down when they're communicating.

There, an older person has gotten something off his chest, and now I think I'll go have another bowl of prunes.