Pass-ing Judgement

Directing

I’ve posted examples on controlbooth.tv of best practices as it pertains to video direction and camera operating in the past, but what about examples of what not to do? What could we learn from others’ mistakes?

Here we have a video of jazz great Joe Pass performing his rendition of George Gerswhin’s “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. Give it a watch/listen. Make a list of what you find distracting. What was done poorly?

What follows is my list of eight things I think detract from this capture of Pass’ performance. Is it different than yours?

0:01 – 0:58 a cable pager (aka, a “Utility” person) is in the background of the opening (Camera Right slash) medium shot. Despite the fact that the Utility is wearing a black shirt and is crouching; his motion, blue jeans, face and arms are clearly visible and in motion detracting from Pass’s musical “first-impression” moment. Note that it appears the Utility is not wearing a comms headset. He likely does not realize he is prominently in-the-shot. If he had been on headset someone could have communicated with him to remain still or duck behind the performer. Ultimately the camera operator he was working with should have told him. Despite this unfortunate distraction the Director chooses to stay with this shot for a good minute! It feels like eternity.

Lenses should capture performers and composition should always “protect” one’s crew from turning into one’s cast. What you crop out of a frame is as important as what you include in the frame. Include that which is important to the story. Eliminate that which distracts or moves the story in unintended directions.

1:01 – 1:10 The Director then dissolves to a wide shot now featuring both the Utility and his handheld camera operator prominently in the background of the frame flanking both sides of the performer. The camera operator is clearly on comms. If the camera operator did not realize he would soon “be polluting” the front angle camera’s frame someone could have told him on headset to clear the location before the Director called for the shot to betaken. Additionally, the composition of the frame the Director goes to is a peculiar choice as all but Pass, the aforementioned crew, a boom mic stand and a music stand are blacked out “in limbo.” Back to the reversal handheld camera operator’s location, it is such that he will likely pollute any and all frames coming from all front cameras.

Handheld camera locations are dynamic. After all, they can move. Camera operators should be warned if the Director is coming to a shot which their current location and presence is polluting. Even if such a warning is not given a camera operator should be situationally aware, cognizant of what each other camera is shooting and seek to protect other camera operators frames. “Return video” (through a camera’s CCU) can be a useful tool which used to assist camera operators in seeing when they are in a bad location. However if “Program” is fed to the Return circuit an operator will likely not realize they are in a bad location until it’s too late. Feeding return via a TD’s router can potentially solve this problem.

1:11 – 1:20 Admittedly this is a pet peeve of mine, but the Director then does an (exceedingly) slow dissolve with the subject of the preceding frame transitioning (dissolving) over the framing of the same subject in the same location of the following frame. The transition (a dissolve) and pacing (slow) may have been more effective if the performer had been framed right on the preceding frame followed by the performer framed left on the following (the reversal from the handheld) avoiding “morphing” dissolve appearance. In general, try not to dissolve between two shots of the same subject with the location of the subject within the frame similar. (Jump to 2:30 for an example of the Director handling a similar transition in a much better way).

When dissolving between two frames of the same subject, attempt to compose each frame (preceding and following) as to position the subject in different locations within the frame. Even when dissolving between different subjects, it’s best not to dissolve one subject directly over another subject.

1:23 We are then subjected to many seconds staring at the performers back! This shot could have actually been effective if the audience or architecture of the house was lit appropriately. But it wasn’t. Unfortunately the Director must have felt Pass’ guitar strap, or the tattered chair was more compelling a shot then something from the front. Not to be overly harsh, but it also appears to me the Director was somewhat insensitive to the moment in the performance as well. It is now the beginning of the song’s second verse. Might the audience at home be more interested in seeing a closer frame of Pass’ hands on the guitar? Or the expression on Pass’ face? No, instead the Director chooses to shoot Pass’ receding hairline. Oh well. Maybe Hair Club for Men was a sponsor.

What is in the foreground and background is important too. Always be intentional about subject, then background, then foreground.

1:29 The Director then double-downs on some of the previous mistakes. Again, a exceedingly slow dissolve with the subject of the preceding frame dissolving over the framing of the subject in the following frame. At least we get a tighter shot of Pass’ hands this time.

Side note: Great job on the Camera Left Slash camera operator’s part starting with the performer’s left hand then pulling out to reveal the performer (in a MCU) then pushing to the performer’s right hand, then left again. Well done, fairly smooth and musical. The move was also appropriate for the point in the song this is done.

2:23 Another wide shot from the front and apparently handheld? Why all the shake? If you can’t hold a wide-shot without shaking the camera you should be positioned closer to talent and/or be on a tripod. How unfortunate.

Camera shake can be an effective tool in a chase or horror scene. It may not be best in the middle of a ballad solo performance. Everything visual and audible has meaning and is interpreted by the audience. Be intentional and judicial.

3:00 One comment, “star filter!” I guess it was “a thing” back in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Glad now not so much.

3:42 Might the camera crew be members of the Screen Actor’s Guild? Personally I am curious to see the old camera technology in this very wide shot, but does an empty stage, a blank projection screen and two crew members help propel the song’s story in any meaningful narrative way to the average viewer? No.

4:16 Three different framings of the same performer on screen at the same time! Wow! I almost can almost hear the producer now, “I paid for a multiple ME switcher, you better use every bit of it!”

Because you can, does not mean you should. Frederic Chopin was quoted as saying “Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” Brahms phrased it, “It is not hard to compose, but what is fabulously hard is to leave the superfluous notes under the table.”

5:49 The final phrase of the song, so sensitively played, again with our handheld operator again polluting the shot, this time not even to frame the performer in the current song but apparently setting up for something occurring next.

A Director’s job is to both be in the moment and (like a great chess player) be thinking many moves ahead. The audience should be in the moment.

6:20 I hear applause but don’t see it. Might the applause be from a sound FX artist? Why don’t they show the audience’ reaction? The audience IS an integral part of the story.

To get audience reaction shots the production team needs to anticipate there will be a reaction. Waiting for the reaction to set-up a shot will often be too late. The audience in the room IS in fact an integral part of your cast. If eliminating them from that which is captured is to deny viewers at home confirmation they are experiencing the same emotions as those present in the room.

Tom D'Angelo

Tom D'Angelo has worked in television production and AVL corporate theater for nearly four decades. He is Emmy Award nominated (Best Director category, Mid-Atlantic) and has been part of various teams nominated or winning national Emmys.  As the Media Director at a megachurch in the 1980’s he developed a love for the Church and church performing and technical artists.