HDR: Part 33 - DOPs: The Less You Show, The More You Know

It’s a truism of our craft that compelling visual stories in film and TV are communicated in the subtext of scenes, that is to say, what we exclude from the Frame is almost always more important to the storytelling than what we include in the Frame. As master image creators and craftsmen, we know and understand: The less you show, the more you know.

The DOP is often required to cheat or otherwise misrepresent reality in service to an intended story. Using tight framing, a longish focal-length lens, and abundant close-ups, this nearly abandoned trading floor appears full of life.

The DOP is often required to cheat or otherwise misrepresent reality in service to an intended story. Using tight framing, a longish focal-length lens, and abundant close-ups, this nearly abandoned trading floor appears full of life.

Here’s a case in point:

In 1994, I recall shooting (what was supposed to be) a hyperactive trading floor at a commodities exchange in a still-emerging European country. As an already experienced DOP, I had shot such locales before, with traders clambering on their desks and shrieking quotes at the top of their lungs. However, this was definitely not the case here in a converted conference room where I discovered a nonplussed cadre of four or five very sedate traders lounging about, sipping espressos, and discussing a recent football match.

Still, I was obligated to tell the client’s story, which included capturing, in all its glory, the wild and unhinged excitement of Europe’s latest, most vibrant trading floor.

So, shooting on film, this was my approach: First, my super-wide 5.9mm Angénieux would stay in its case as such a perspective would have only made the trading floor appear more deserted and devoid of life. No, instead, this was clearly the moment for a longish focal length lens to narrow and compress the trading room and take maximum advantage of the few inert bodies I had at my disposal.

What’s this? Not seeing anything!  A blank screen can tell a very compelling visual story. In the 1980s Polish documentary Ballad of a Strike, the camera confiscated by the police in the Gdansk shipyard captures not much to see from the inside a brown paper bag.

What’s this? Not seeing anything! A blank screen can tell a very compelling visual story. In the 1980s Polish documentary Ballad of a Strike, the camera confiscated by the police in the Gdansk shipyard captures not much to see from the inside a brown paper bag.

By stacking one trader behind the other, the room appeared on screen to be teaming with manic brokers. Of course, I still had to compel my laidback coffee klatch to wave their arms and bark a few orders. This was doable, albeit with some effort. The main thing, however, was framing the close-ups and filling them to the point of busting, suggesting an unimaginable frenzy of buying and selling outside the frame. Thus, the unseen element, excluded from the Frame, communicated more effectively the assigned story than what I had actually included and was plainly visible inside the Frame.

DOPs, in collaboration with their clients and/or directors, will often employ close-ups to narrow the field of view and properly direct the viewers’ attention. Close-ups are effective because they tell an audience: Look at this. This is important. In real life, our brains perform this function automatically. For instance, we enter a coffee shop and see a friend seated in a chair, and we subconsciously frame out everyone else who happens to be sitting around.

Just like in real life, seeing less helps focus the visual story. Meeting a friend for coffee? The close-up at right excludes the extraneous people and clutter that can detract from a compelling story.

Just like in real life, seeing less helps focus the visual story. Meeting a friend for coffee? The close-up at right excludes the extraneous people and clutter that can detract from a compelling story.

Thus, close-ups serve a vital storytelling function by restricting what we show and know or might suspect. The horror genre relies heavily on just such a conceit; frequently exploiting a constrained field of view to build suspense and tension. Unable to see beyond the edge of the frame, audience can well imagine and fear that a killer may be looming nearby and ready to strike.

This notion of showing less to communicate more informs other aspects of the DOP’s craft as well. We routinely use, for example, various forms of lighting control like cutters and barndoors, to render potentially distracting objects less visible inside the Frame. Experienced DOPs, when lighting a scene, will also manipulate the density and character of shadows to help conceal an actor’s emerging weight problem, or orient a talent in such a way to reduce the visibility of facial blemishes, acne scars, or other shortcomings.

Shooting the rotund? Does your talent think they look fat on camera? One idea: Use a strong sidelight to hide half their shape. Keep it soft to de-emphasize the offending rolls. The less you show, the less you know!<br />

Shooting the rotund? Does your talent think they look fat on camera? One idea: Use a strong sidelight to hide half their shape. Keep it soft to de-emphasize the offending rolls. The less you show, the less you know!

Just as a sound recordist seeks to exclude background noise, a screenwriter omits unnecessary dialogue, and actors strive to forego gestures that detract from the desired story, DOPs also do well to adopt an analogous strategy to help focus and strengthen the visual treatment. This is achieved, most notably, by excluding unhelpful elements from the Frame via tighter cropping, strategic lighting via manipulation of shadows, selective focus, or a slight compositional change to deemphasize offending objects that can’t be excluded any other way.

The lesson to aspiring DOPs is thus: Show less and you’ll communicate more. A lot more.

Broadcast Bridge Survey

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