From TV to Video and now d-Cinema — the Rise of a New kind of Storyteller.
“I found out something. What I found out was that reporting in television and the reporting I do were word logic based, that is they were lectures, picture illustrations or interviews”.
These were the words of one of television news’ pioneers, Robert Drew, sixty years ago gently railing against television journalism’s direction. TV News journalism barely a decade old was on the wrong path in producing stories, and Drew had the answer.
We would have to drop word logic and find a dramatic logic in which things really happened.
For fifty years TV executives generally ignored him. They had reason to. They knew best or so they considered. The medium was drawing in audiences and making money. TV news revolved around the reporter and words. In spite of the fact it was a visual medium, words were primacy. You see it it today in Journalism schools teaching cohorts how to write with words, but seldom how to do so with images.
Drew’s legacy is embedded in a range of filmmaking and cinema forms, in films that are preserved for their historical importance, and equipment that the world over we take for granted. If it wasn’t for Drew and his friends (and French competitor), there would be no handheld cameras, no fly-on-the wall, no Direct Cinema (Cinema Verite).
Drew passed away 30th July 2014.
I wonder what he would make of this? This extraordinary film from the BBC from the front lines in Ukraine.
My guess is he would have a lot to say and I imagine a further conversation with him pointing to a gradual, perhaps imperceptive shift to his Direct Cinema in Journalism, and something else.
My transatlantic call to his home, was everything I dreamed off. It gives me the chills now. I had for some years come across a burgeoning group of young journalists influenced by cinema’s langue ( form of language). An example being Danfung Dennis, whose film To Hell and Back Again swept award after award. I had come across Drew and his influential friends too, in Maysles and Pennebaker.
Yet, each time I mentioned cinema to a TV exec, I was mildly, if not curiously put down. How absurd to suggest anything remotely about cinema being a part of television news journalism, was often the refrain. It’s just good television isn’t it, was the come back.
But ample evidence, the history of television news, the history of cinema ( it was not always fictional), the distinguishing forms of storytelling by different cultures, and above all given a choice — what audiences wanted to see suggested a Mark II of Drews’ ideals was gradually taking shape.
The key word perhaps is “choice” with help from technology, and a breed of storytellers who intuit the balance between words and images to quietly draw in an audience.
Drew chuckled in our conversation. When TV journalists see a good image, he said, they’ll talk all over it. Here, again the reporter as primacy. The breed emerging today not only understand not to do that, but have developed a word craft that greatly minimises word count, and play to metaphors, or visual metonyms. Just watch the video above.
In Quentin Sommerville and DC’s (Camera- Darren Conway @dcinfocus) film cinema’s generous langue is on display. Lens dynamic creates an arresting aesthetic. Compositions act as page turners, and the story floats into the consciousness.
In 2012 as reported on my blog back then, I examined the work of BBC Correspondent Paul Wood’s report with his camera man Fred Scott in Homs, Syria. The unfolding of life, the compositional story form — cinema journalism.
Presenting at SXSW about the same time and thereafter, I’ve sought to distinguish between cinematic journalism and cinema journalism. The former appears defined by the camera’s cinemacity, with duals between shallow depth of fields (SOF) and long focus and film tint.
In the 1950s pioneering TV Cameraman Slim Hewitt created a dynamic form of visual storytelling using a Bolex camera (sans SOF). In the documentary : The man who set the camera free (1987) he would refer to himself as a picture journalist. In 2012, the BBC would label a new type of camera operator something similar.
Cinema, just as with Drew’s conception , is a broader meta verse. Unlike television journalism which is analogous to democracy in that there is one model, in cinema there are different styles. It’s easy too to forget democracy of some form existed before it’s western conception emerged that guarded against regional nuances.
Cinema, and for the matter digital cinema ( d-cinema) and its storytelling is cultural-centric.The tropes, langue, styles will be dependent upon the audiences cultural schema and the storyteller’s ability to get into this psyche.
Hence, whilst Drew envisaged Direct Cinema in a journalism world, its manifestation is not a one-size fits all. I’m not saying he ever said that, but I am saying as drawn to the BBC film as I am, when I’ve spoken to experts in India, Russia, China, Egypt or the US, the future will be more nuanced in news journalism, more directed to how cinema frames storytelling from different regions.
There’s evidence from elsewhere in addressing TV2 staff in Denmark, who just like CNN are on a streaming platform. Imagine what would happen if Netflix did news, I said to the audience.
Something too is happening on TikTok that is also disrupting this space. It’s where visual and literary expositions cohere to create a more immersive language for viewers. Drews’ drama logic of (intense) continuity is growing.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah started his TV career working on Newsnight and BBC Reportage in the early 90s. He’s worked as a journalist for BBC, ITN, Channel 4 News and ABC News. His doctorate built on his work as one of the UK’s first officially recognised videojournalists, examining craft skills of different story forms across the globe, including cinema journalism. He’s an RTS juror. More on him here