How Cinema ups News Making’s Game

It’s not unusual for TV executives to talk about television news storytelling and apologise for the use of the word ‘cinema’ or cinematic’ in describing a scene that leaps out of the screen.

The apology tends to signify the presence of a highly visual aesthetic e.g. shallow focus, which is associated with, not TV, but cinema feature films.

From my interviews with execs there is an awkwardness. Television execs citing cinema when they’re two different media: primarily one is truth and fact and the other is fiction, means at the very least it’s best to use the term sparingly.

Im here to suggest the word ‘Cinema’ is used more. But it must stem from more than a surface understanding of its nature. For this you could rightly scour any number of books like Bazin’s ‘What is cinema?’ Another day. For now, this.

Cinema arrived before TV and for a while was factual. In the 1920s documentary was an attempt at cinema told factually, which is why Grierson, the father of docs, talks about ‘the creative use of actuality’.

When TV news arrived in the 1950s it had many reasons to discard the label cinema. This new medium needed to be distinct, different from Newsreels which followed a cinema form. Then there was the lack of resources e.g. cameras and small size of screen that hampered TV’s cinemacity. Imagine trying to ape John Ford on a screen back then which was fuzzy and no bigger than a 13-inch computer screen? Yep, but no, but!

In the 1960s Robert Drew and Jean Rouch and changed this attitude to cinema with their aptly named versions of Cinema Verite. Note the term ‘cinema’ and that people like the great Albert Maysles (left) were heavily influenced by cinema.

Their motivation were prominently about doing away with V/O and a reporter.

They might have had more traction in news but Drew was considered an outsider, and inside news the reporter was central. Thus observation docs ran with the term. News didn’t.

As a language, cinema’s expressiveness within an array of styles and sequences to tell a story offers a far wider palette than traditional TV news making. This wasn’t a given, but earlier in TV News’s development execs chose to create a finite template that was exported around the world. This. Is. How. You. Do. News. was the message. It still persists.

Here’s a not so obvious piece of trivia. If news purported to bring you the whole of a story, why does it only have one camera operator? Can you honestly say one camera will suffice? I know what you’e thinking. Course yes, it’s proven.

I’m afraid the original answer is earnestly more simple. Officials couldn’t afford more than one camera in the 1950s. Remember TV was never supposed to work and as such wasn’t given a cat’s whisker to survive, so little resources were spared to it.

Like the five monkeys experiment, knowledge of this and many other reasons have been lost. TV has been made to cope with a handicap which has become an ‘obvious’ norm! Remember too when TV News pioneer Grace Wyndham Goldie’s memoirs she was dead set against cinema, documentary, or Grierson coming anywhere this new form she was helping to build.

Hence the use of lighting , different lenses to tell a story, or different camera framings was off the table. Nothing in the way, it could be ascertained back then as expressive, was permissible.

To tell richer visual stories it pays to understand cinema, just as if you were writing a news feature you might have Orwell’s writing style in the back of your head.

Now here’s the kicker. Over the years, several award winning camera operators talk of how cinema has influenced their work. So long as the journalism is present, bosses didn’t mind, is a regular refrain.

And you could be forgiven for thinking the terms blur now. Fifty inch screens offer a potential for John Ford’s landscape. Drone shots offer a POV anathema to TV people in the 50s. Different lenses with shallow focus provide aesthetic shots, which by their very nature editorialise the frame.

Courtesy of Sitbonzo

What do I mean? When we were using 50 mm fixed lenses, this was TV News objectivity within a frame. You the viewer chose your focus. Not now with 50mm lenses at 1.2F.

This is the equivalent of TV News exaptation, but not many recognise this, because the two media Cinema and TV are distinct and different. T’was so in the 60s, 70s and beyond 2000 and it will be forever so. Well?

And lest it’s thought that cinema resides in the use of tech gear, er no! Cinema studies is a broad canvas in itself and to cite Bazin there is no essence. However a modus operandi of working with the form up front or in the back of your mind, depending on the author, creates an engagement with the viewer that is purposeful and often something else.

To quote Clive Myries and a friend and multiple award winning videojournalist Raül Gallego Abellán: “I want the audience to feel how I feel”.

We should be encouraging more understanding of cinema.

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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