A video portrait is an excellent way to spotlight a unique individual or location. Interesting subjects can be found at every corner, and are a great way to spark your creativity.
Storytelling, either through filmmaking or writing, is made up of two types of building blocks: concrete and abstract. To demonstrate the difference between each, picture the following words in your mind: horse… money… love. The word “horse” is a literal representation; the word is concrete and universally pictured as a specific animal. The representation of “money” may come as a literal stack of money or as luxury items and the lifestyle associated with them. The word falls in between concrete and abstract. A visualization of “love” differs between person and culture. It is abstract and represented by the emotions evoked and connected with it. Much like these examples, video portraits fall into three similar categories.
The artistic portrait (abstract) is less about the subject and more about the film’s visuals or techniques. These types of portraits often are without dialogue or have separate dialogue not linked to the visuals. I often refer to this style as lyrical or visual poetry.
In George Kuchar’s Wild Night in El Rino, the subject is not a person, but a storm. George gives the audience little information to this point aside from what is visually seen. Through the use of film he documents the nuances of the storm as seen through his eyes, capturing the mood and feeling of the storm the same way a poet would capture the storm through the use of words.
The second example, Kyle, I created in 2006. Again, the film’s focus is on visuals. I chose to use a Mini DV camera at a very slow shutter speed to create a pastel colored palate the subject travels through. The limited used of sound (footsteps, breathing, and guitar playing) further adds to the idea of visual poetry composing the portrayed subject.
Mini Documentary (Indirect Approach)
Al Monelli’s Man With Puppet is an example of what I refer to as the indirect approach to video portraits (a mix of abstract and concrete). The indirect approach has a story arch that does not expose the “who”, “what”, and “why” of the subject upfront. Rater, the focus is on the inner struggles of the subject and the content is told through the visuals, building the story of the portrait as the film progresses.
The second example by James Hollenbaugh is an excerpt from Self Portrait Portrait. What is interesting about this piece is that the concrete and abstract areas are separated; the visuals serve as the abstract, and the audio the concrete. Where one ends, the other fills in. The audio tells the inner feelings of the subject, while the visuals paint a visual representation. Both are equally important, and can not exist without one another. Combined together, they create this amazing portrait.
Mini Documentary (Direct Approach)
The direct approach tells the “who”, “what”, and “why” of the subject upfront. While this style can still be artistic /semi-abstract, the main focus is on conveying information about the subject to the viewer. This is often the structure of documentary, promotional, and more recently, “Kick Starter” videos, as this information is needed upfront.
The first example is another film by James Hollenbaugh, I Made it With Colors. The focus of the piece is to portray the organization through subject interaction.
Art 21 has an excellent direct approach example with their portrait of Martha Colburn. The piece discusses her artistic process and is accompanied by visual representations to tell her story, portraying who she is as an artist.
Let this be an inspiration to use at least one of the styles listed (or all three!) in your future projects. Video portraits are individually unique and no two subjects or ways of portraying them are the same. Plus, searching for and finding the subject is half the fun.