We’re on the threshold of the official “Second Season” in television. The PR machine is already humming at full speed as it spews out the bios and backgrounders to let you know what’s worth seeing, what might be good for you and what may not be a total waste of your time.
This stuff usually focuses on the stars, the genius auteurs, the track record of the producing company, or the novelists whose work inspired the production. Sometimes it even mentions the screenwriter’s past credits, suggesting he or she has hit another one out of the park.
This is all part of the commerce of the television business, the enticement of “eyeballs”, the process of putting bums on couches, so somebody can sell you something or simply rake in a share of your cable subscription.
You’re assured the new show is just like a Private Eye series you loved in the 70’s, a medical drama big in the 90’s or a new take on a comedy genre that you liked a couple of seasons back.
But little of the hype gets at what you’re going to take away from the viewing experience. And almost none of it focuses on the fact that film is a collaborative art and most of what you’re experiencing is contributed by people whose names are never mentioned in promos and whose end credits either fly past at an unreadable rate or are squashed into a corner of the screen so you can be titillated with what’s coming next.
Most of the reason that television is repetitive, uninspiring or just plain bad is that the people who program it are more concerned with the perception of what they’re offering than how it will be physically perceived.
As a species we haven’t been out of the trees or away from the campfire long enough for our DNA to discern story telling by its value instead of as a visceral experience.
Studies have shown that only 10% of the information a film or TV audience absorbs comes from what it hears. When you consider that this small slice is shared by dialogue, vocal performance, sound effects and music, those juicy one-liners we slave over pale in significance.
90% of the film and TV experience enters the viewer through their eyes. Most of what they care about are the actors and the action. But how they subliminally read all that is supported by the choices made for sets and settings, costumes, even props. And all of those things are brought together through the eyes of a cinematographer.
I’ve always hated the term DOP (Director of Photography) because it sounds like some kind of administrative position. Cinematographer says artist and if you have a good one, the film or series you are making is unimaginably elevated.
Too often, Cinematographers are judged by their panoramic sunset shots and sweeping vistas. But their true art lies in the little things we wouldn’t notice unless they made us see them.
I’ve had the good fortune to work with cinematographers who could frame a shot to make an ordinary street scene transform into three dimensions, even if you weren’t shooting 3D. I’ve watched a somewhat plain actress be transitioned to classic beauty with the shift of a key light. And I’ve sat stunned in dailies as the play of light and camera movement has brought a new level to a moment I wrote but never conceived could be there.
It’s those things that an audience takes to its heart and makes them come back for more and tell their friends to do the same. Take another look at “Mad Men”, “Dexter”, “The Sopranos” or “Sons of Anarchy”, each has a visual style as important to the story as any of their more promoted qualities.
As an example of the power a cinematographer can have, I want to introduce you to a guy named Joseph August, who, in the fall of 1944 worked on what should have been a mostly forgettable John Wayne war film called “They Were Expendable”.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing really bad about any film directed by John Ford or dealing with the issues of patriotism and sacrifice embodied in Frank Wead’s screenplay. The story revolves around a naval crew decimated and literally abandoned to die in the Pacific. It’s the kind of picture that simply wouldn’t get made today.
But what gives “They Were Expendable” its emotional power is the way Joseph August paints its scenes turning it into what director Lindsay Anderson described as “an epic poem”.
August was a Colorado cowboy who ended up working on a Santa Monica movie ranch and emigrated to film making. He never used a light meter, trusting in what he saw with his own eyes and maybe a little of the artistic instincts that resided in cowboy artists like Frederick Remington or Charles Russell.
This is the kind of attention to detail that is ignored or in some cases outright eliminated in the quest to capture television audiences; when, in reality, it is these same never mentioned film artists, perhaps likewise considered “expendable” by network “big picture” thinkers, who could most capture the eyeballs they covet.
Enjoy Joseph August’s play of light. And enjoy your Sunday.