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Rekindle Your Creativity – Video Portraits

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.

Artistic Representation

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.

Rekindle Your Creativity – The Single Shot Music Video

“Okay crew, we’re going to have the band play the song, everyone shoot and we’ll edit it into something.” How many times have you seen a music video that falls into either of these over-piled categories:

#1.Quick cuts throughout the video made without thought or reason.

Or even worse…

#2. A semi-follow able side plot of nameless characters juxtaposed between live shots of the band performing.

Viral music videos are at an all time high, but what do they all have in common? They are unique and based on a creative concept. The huge budgets companies and bands once had access to for videos have diminished. The music video is now made with the smallest budget possible and as cheaply as possible, forcing filmmakers to conceptualize a unique and creative concept that can be enhanced through the tools and limitations of filmmaking. Shooting a one shot video forces the film maker to creatively plan out every portion of the video and constantly justify the reasoning behind each step.

What makes a one shot video successful basically can be broken down into two areas: use of filmmaking, and creative conception. As filmmakers, we should have the first down pat, but as for the second….

Let’s take a look at two examples, the first highly successful with a high production, and the second a low budget production that fell short. Also, let me clarify I enjoy every band I’m listing, and am not saying the song or band is not talented because of their video.

High Production & High Success:

“Ava Adore” by the Smashing Pumpkins, blends both filmmaking and idea conception together wonderfully. The filmmaking side is heavily influenced by theater with the selected costumes and lighting, and the movements and positioning of characters are choreographed down to the dot like a theater production. A dose of German Expressionism mixes in though the singer’s Victorian style clothing  as the singer rising slowly from his seat, nodding to the silent era Nosferatu film. The movement of the band members in and out of both sides of the frame as well their positioning broken up between foreground, middle ground, and background move the theatrics into a creative level of film making. All these elements add together in perfect proportion to making a creative well thought out, and high end video.

That is, until the video flips the viewer upside down. At 2:36 The camera crosses the threshold revealing the back end of the production process and the fourth wall comes crashing down. The viewer rethinks everything up until this point. The rooms the singer progressed, each distinctive in lighting and design, were all part of a set. The dolly track, crew members, and lighting come out from the shadows. The video takes on an entirely new meaning having the viewer question what is before his or her eyes. Rain inside, a simulated sex scene, and the singer on the theater screen mirroring and zooming into infinity. Without this addition, the one shot direction of this video would be average. We re-watch the video again. We notice the primary color palette in the opening room, the high key black and white room, we realize what went into the video that we have overlooked.

Low Production & Not Successful:

“”Yellow” by Coldplay is a more poetic or lyrical approach influenced by the French New Wave movement and post-new wave film makers such as Gus Van Sant. Now I’m saying the video isn’t well done, but the bare bones filmmaking mixed the low visual progression doesn’t keep interest. The visuals of the video fit the meaning of the song, slowly transitioning from night to day (though it looks mostly though color grading). It is beautiful, the song fits the style, but the creativity stops there.

High Creativity On a No Budget:

What if I don’t have a budget?

Time and time again I quote that filmmakers are some of the most intelligent people due to the fact they can manage creativity and skills for any budget, small or large. I’ve found two great examples to fuel creative thinking. Before we do so, let’s jump back again to the focus of this article now that examples have been established. Making a one shot music video is all about making as creative a production possible that translate into film, and using film as a tool to enhance that idea. By planning out every detail of the production including the reasoning behind the camera movement, the composition, and the lighting, conception of future projects will be greatly enhanced.

After the short introduction by the band, the magic begins at 10 seconds in.

What stands out first is that the filmmaking is outlined but not planned down to a “T” mirroring the persona of the band’s aväntˈɡärd music style and personality. Here’s where the creativity mixes exceptionally well with the film making. By the look of the video it was shot with an older camera such as a VHS or Mini DV. But now the real kicker… it’s left on Auto Focus!

The layout of the video has four main spots, the beginning area, the singer, the drummer, and the guitar player with a run and gun switch off between each. The camera is fixed on a tripod and pans to each. The location looks like the inside of a house or apartment corridor with exposed lighting cords in plain sight. All of these elements add to the overall success and creativity of the video by addressing and working off of each. Let’s compare this video to the previous two. “Ava Adore” is well produced and successful, but turns into somewhat forced, while “Yellow” turns into a snore fest. This video is “Fun”. After watching twenty or so one shot videos, the most successful entries have that word in common. That fun translates into creative thinking and utilizing the strengths of filmmaking.

Let’s take a look at one last example.

“LifeWar” by Demon Hunter is about as basic as a production can get. One light (possibly two including the blue flashes on the singer’s face), and a stagnant tripod shot. What makes it successful? The idea mirrors not only the style of the music but the band’s personal message. It has progression – fog, water, paint, fire, etc. This is an excellent example of a creatively successful music video that fits the band’s personality.

I know I skipped over most of the more well known “Viral” style videos such as those by OK GO (Check out the mousetrap fueled fun in “This Too Shall Pass” if you haven’t already), and there are many others that are great as well. Even if you don’t create a full one shot music video, translate these concepts into your productions. Thinking of the reason behind each addition to the production will greatly increase direction and overall quality of the product. Very often the most engaging and emotional moments in films are dynamic single shots. Let this be an exercise in tools that will translate into short films, commercials, and personal projects.