HDR: Part 40 - DOPs : Make Your Viewers Suffer

In some ways, the best DOP and a sadist have a lot in common: We strive to make our viewers suffer and the curious thing is, our audiences love us the more for it. Of course, DOPs, like most civilized people, wouldn’t think to wrench the fingernails from our viewers’ fingers; I’m not talking about that kind of suffering exactly.

Let me explain. When it comes to great DOP’s inflicting pain on audiences, I’m really talking about not making our images too easy to decipher. The celebrated Depression-era photographer Ralph Steiner said it best one day over lunch in 1973. Chatting with Ralph at his house in rural Vermont, the octogenarian/world-class curmudgeon clued me in to his innermost secret. He told me: ‘If you’re going to simply go outside to photograph a tree and do nothing more than raise the camera to your eye and click the shutter, what’s the point of photographing the tree? You’d be better off just telling me to go outside and look at the tree!’

Figure 1.  Great DOPs don’t make it too easy for audiences to decipher their images.

Figure 1. Great DOPs don’t make it too easy for audiences to decipher their images.

For centuries, the goal of every artist, photographer, and DOP, has been to capture the world in a unique way with a point of view our audiences have not seen before. That means not making the viewing experience too easy or convenient. Indeed, we want our viewers to work - preferably hard, even excruciatingly so - to figure out what we’re up to. We want them to decipher the story inside our images, to make the extra effort to explore and revel in their discoveries, because, well, as we all know, and as Benjamin Franklin once so famously postulated: Things that come lightly are valued lightly.

The best DOPs understand this raw naked truth, and strive implicitly to obscure and conceal the intent of their images. We do this in a myriad of ways by defocusing a scene, say, shooting through and around objects, or adding smoke or atmosphere to add texture and mystery. Sometimes we’ll use optical filters, a silk stocking, smear of Vaseline, or shaky camera movement, to muddy the storytelling canvas and provide resistance to a clean viewing experience. The DOP’s craft is a lot like lifting weights in a gym; a certain amount of pain and discomfort must be inflicted in order to achieve the greater goal.

Figure 2.  a) Ben Franklin, b) Dhaka traffic jam.  American statesman/philosopher Ben Franklin astutely once said: ‘Things that come lightly are valued lightly’.  Skilled DOPs must inflict a healthy dose of discomfort to foster audience investment in the filmic story. Selective focus and obscuring the subject can often help.<br />

Figure 2. a) Ben Franklin, b) Dhaka traffic jam. American statesman/philosopher Ben Franklin astutely once said: ‘Things that come lightly are valued lightly’. Skilled DOPs must inflict a healthy dose of discomfort to foster audience investment in the filmic story. Selective focus and obscuring the subject can often help.

Of course, this propagation of viewer suffering can go too far, and DOPs should be sure to inflict the requisite pain in carefully measured amounts. As in all things related to the cinematographic craft, utilizing proper discipline and self-control are very much in order here. The best DOPs know and understand that audiences are a fragile and easily alienated lot, that excessive ‘embellishment’ of images by introducing too much camera movement, diffusion, grunge, or abstraction, will quickly antagonize an audience and lead many to head for the exits or check their email and social media posts. DOPs should bear in mind that audiences, like everyone else, HATE suffering for no good or apparent reason; and the thing is the more pain we inflict and make our viewers suffer, the bigger and more satisfying the ultimate payoff must be.

Figure 3.  a), b) Nothing special. We see medium eye-level shots every day walking down the street past a 7-Eleven or the DMV. c) It is the DOP’s job to reveal the world in a challenging way that requires viewer effort and engagement.

Figure 3. a), b) Nothing special. We see medium eye-level shots every day walking down the street past a 7-Eleven or the DMV. c) It is the DOP’s job to reveal the world in a challenging way that requires viewer effort and engagement.

As a young cinematographer specializing in birds for National Geographic, I recall one particular assignment shooting the Snowy White Egret in the Gulf of Mexico. On a tiny sandbar only a few meters across, I set my Arriflex 16SR atop an extended tripod and began a slow zoom in on the rocky surface. Screening the dailies later at NGS in Washington, my producer and his team squirmed in obvious pain and discomfort at what surely seemed like an endless 30-second zoom in on a bunch of rocks until my audience slowly, one at a time, realized the rocks weren’t rocks at all, but eggs with tiny baby egrets and poking their heads through the shells. I heard the oohs-and-aahs from my audience and I knew then and there, after inflicting such suffering that I had my next assignment.

Figure 4.  Increasing the audience ‘suffering’ quotient takes many forms. a) Shooting through and around objects is a favorite technique of many DOPs. b) Adding smoke or atmosphere is another to help obscure images and increase viewer investment.

Figure 4. Increasing the audience ‘suffering’ quotient takes many forms. a) Shooting through and around objects is a favorite technique of many DOPs. b) Adding smoke or atmosphere is another to help obscure images and increase viewer investment.

The lesson is clear. When we choose to inflict pain on our audiences, we better have a good storytelling reason with the appropriate payoff. To do otherwise, to make our viewers suffer for no reason, is sadistic. The best DOPs understand that, in the interest of humanity and our livelihood.

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