Phillip Bloom makes movies, cinematic good ones at that. Yet the style for this former Sky news cameraman turned one-man industry is not devoid of serendipity. It’s about experimenting, he says illustrating this from a drone film clip where he’s flying the device backwards.
Each passing movements reveals the unseen moving into the frame. His film, shot on the Thailand paradise-idyl Island of Koh Yao Noi would go onto win an award — the New York City Drone Film Festival.
Some of the shots invite disbelief: inch level strafes across the beach; and daring precision manoeuvres through ropes and branches. The margins for error here would have had dire consequences.
Then there’s this one: a continuous fourteen second shot and close-up next to a group of children. That he owns up wasn’t done with a drone. Illusion shattered. I was travelling on a quad bike, he proffers, and the children shot was handheld he adds.
Having secured enough flying time to become proficient, unsurprisingly for Bloom, a cinematographer, his aerial shot list for later productions are less decorative now and more purposeful.
In a production for CNN, he illustrates how from a montage of shots, only one was a drone. The creme of cinematography’s raison d’être is to interpret the emotional punctum of a scene and deliver an appropriate filming solution — even if it means hiring a helicopter for a one and only shot.
In another room, same time, (that is a perennial problem in break-way groups) One-Man-band Scott Rensberger is holding the audience in the palm of his rugged weathered hands. A raconteur, with a good line in repartees for everyone of his films, Rensberger is a cause-celeb for old skool journalism filmmaking. Thirty years with front-line trauma experience is beyond the stuff of social media plundering — particularly when your lens is trained on dead body, after dead body.
It’s about the story is his message.
His persistence in producing a film, which could aptly be called ‘Gun Porn’, from one of the world’s biggest gun shoot festivals in Kentucky is insanely watchable. The shoot (film rather than gun) could easily not have happened.
Many times the organisers turned him away because of their antipathy to reporters. Several times he ignored their instructions. At one point he says the organiser shrugs, adding no matter how long he joins the queue he won’t get in. Rensberger keeps rejoining the queue. He gets into the event in the end after a wisecrack aimed at the owner about the alternative to him being barred. I’ll date your daughter, he says. She’s 14, the organiser quips. Well, this is kentucky, Rensberger replies.
It could have all gone horribly wrong. Luckily the owner has a sense of dark humour.
The film by the way is a rock and rollin parody of American gun lobby virtues — the right to offload as many rounds as you can on a firing plain, with some participants packing flame torches and 90mm shell artillery.
For Rensberger and Bloom, and Dan Chung (who spoke the previous day) technology is assistive towards ends. It’s trade craft that rules at a time when its seems the Western world suffers from the condition, Technoritis — the enduring phantasia and yearning towards the next broadcast technology.
Thirty years or thereabouts in the trade has given these auteurs a well honed insight into producing exemplar work. I first met Rensberger from sharing a panel with him in Spain a decade ago.
If much has changed it appears to be type of camera he uses — from the stoic beta the size of a suitcase to something more portable though he has no use, as he puts it, for changing cameras ever so often.
For all of these experts, it’s simply about the story- an oft-repeated phrase that is as attractive as it is elusively disjunctive. What does it mean?
In essence, from some of the world’s foremost academics in film professor Noël Carroll and David Bordwell, you could delineate a story narrative into its raw elements (syuzhet) and the plot (fabula). These terms (italic) stem from Russian narrative scholars working within literature in the early 1900s — just as cinema was taking shape.
Put another way unconsciously/consciously you gather your data from what the story is and then seek to organise it into a logical structure. That structure can be coherent for the creator and the audience, or incoherent — as with some art — but is governed by the forces of style. Style can be atomised into several shards: your personal style, the style in vogue at present and the style of the territory.
So, notwithstanding Rensberger’s exemplary work, which I studied alongside scores of award winning filmmakers for my doctorate, his style is influenced by a thematic, and contemporary style, from the US. There are several more, but this will do for the moment.
You can observe patterns from 1970s reporting styles of Charles Kuralt from CBS’s On the Road. More contemporary, perhaps more appropriate comparisons can be found from the the award-winning videojournalist Dave Delozier and his film Being There for Betty (2009) and Mike Castellucci who also spoke at MoJoCon. Note the canter of their films, with cuts that last 1–3 seconds and the sound envelopes, which create overlapping audio. It’s something you’ll hardly see if ever in British journalism filmmakers.
Of course the filmmaker projects their own personal style — baggage collected from over the years which gives him or her their artistic individualism.
In considering what the story is, the filmmaker will be influenced by cinematographic elements. All filmmaking involves this, though some are more pronounced and therefore earn the moniker, cinematographer.
Thus, what camera shots to acquire and how you acquire them influenced by your style, thematic style etc is also a necessary consideration. Similar considerations arise in what shots to adumbrate filmed characters. All this, and an issue not exclusive to our time, begs the question: what camera to use?
Five years ago it was DSLRs. Today its mobile. Ten years ago, it was the Sony VX range. 45 years ago it was the Richter ( below) a 16mm camera so small it could fit into the palm of your hand.
Tomorrow, it’s anyone’s guess. VR, 360, or presence reality? But believe me there will be a tomorrow, so long as market forces and industry sense a vulnerability in consumer purchasing habits.
Remember America’s chronic problem in the 1950s when consumers bought goods for practical reasons, and as Vance Packard points out in his New York No. 1 best seller The Hidden Persuaders, that to boost profits manufacturers hired psychologists to mine the emotions of consumers, its been gayly happening since, and ratcheted up. Today, the wheels are off.
Tech and its gleeful colours is the eye candy to our Technoritis fix and mobile has become a veritable industry driving some professionals and citizens into new buying habits.
That’s not to say the mobile hasn’t scored some successes, but that emerges from convenience, when nothing else would do. The Arab Spring, a Sky reporter on his way home filming people looting during the London riots, and in 2012 Al Jazeera filming a whole documentary on a mobile, otherwise risk being targeted by various factions in Syria — these can be put down to convenience.
Cost, ease of use, and mobility have also been cited, but if it’s trade craft you’re after, the first mantra is pick the right gear for the job, rather than be enslaved by a device.
The Difference between Videojournalism and Trad TV.
Ironically and not without some mirth, mobile birthed itself from the loins of videojournalism — a much misunderstood word. It’s not surprising too that for some of the stalwarts of mobile their CV boasts videojournalism as their beginnings.
As cameras go, there’s not much difference in shooting styles between videojournalism and mobile. In fact you could go one step further. The whole point of videojournalism was to break the style of traditional television, go intimate and develop different visual languages. Mobile hasn’t achieved such a prominent lingua franca.
In other words there was a distinct difference in screen aesthetics and style between videojournalists (VJs) and traditional journalists. The VJs dramatic breakthrough was that shots could be more fluid, intimate, and personalised.
Indeed, when the late Robert Drew filmed the eponymous documentary Primary (1960) featuring US president hopeful John Kennedy in the 1960s, achieving handheld in-the-crowd shots like this ( ‘a magnificent shot’,). Until then this look and feel was alien. Drew and Associates spent $1m miniaturizing a camera so it could be mobile. He’s viewed as the link between television standards and videojournalism and referred to his craft as mobile journalism.
While mobile is convenient, perhaps the very point why it deserves its accolades is its ability to film and push straight to platforms, however it has yet to claim a tabula rasa and scope a filmic vocabulary. May be it doesn’t have to. Perhaps by the time it beds down, we’ll be waxing about the next innovation and the sages will emphasise once again, ‘You know what, it’s not about the gear, it’s about the story. Truly. Really!’
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah spoke at MojoCon in 2016. He uses a variety of solutions to create innovative media. He’s worked for amongst others, BBC Newsnight, Channel 4 News, BBC Radio, the World Service and devised PA’s videojournalism programme over a 28 year career. His book Revolutionary Video Makers is being published. It examines global phenomenon and styles towards creating innovative work. You can see more of David’s work at viewmagazine and his personal site DavidDunkleyGyimah