Don’t Distract Your Audience
By Jim Owens
As each shot appears on the screen, the audience sees and hears it for the first time. In an instant, they have to interpret what the director has selected to put there. It is not surprising that viewers can occasionally become confused.
Unless the director is careful, the audience may “look at the wrong thing”—that is, the viewer’s attention might alight on something else in the picture that is more prominent, more colorful, or more interesting.
The duration of a shot is important too. If the director hangs on to any shot for too long, the audience will begin to lose interest. If the shots are too brief, they may flick past the viewer’s eyes without entering the brain.
The director’s goal is to help the viewers understand, to guide their thoughts, whether the scene is describing a technical process or telling a joke. The director does not want to confuse or distract them by irrelevancies. It is important to present a logical sequence of ideas that the audience can easily follow. The audience cannot stop to ask what the director meant or to reread what was said. Viewers have to get the point first time around.
If the director does not take the trouble to choose shots carefully, people have to look around each picture, trying to decide what it is all about, correctly or incorrectly. If they do not have any idea of what they are supposed to be looking at (or don’t find it interesting), they will look at whatever draws their attention. Random pictures produce random thoughts.
Occasionally, the director may actually want to puzzle or intrigue the audience in order to create a dramatic or comic buildup of tension. The camera enters a quiet room. The viewers are left wondering; they see a threatening shadow of someone standing there, but a moment later they realize that it is only coming from garments on a coat rack. They have been fooled.
But, in most situations, if the audience is left puzzled, wondering where the shadow is, or what it is supposed to be, or why they have been switched away from something they found interesting to this new unexplained scene, then something is very wrong. Some directors do this all too often when they try to introduce some variety or do something different. The shot cuts to a building reflected in a puddle, or some wayside flowers, or a dog sleeping beside the road, or to some other image that seems to have nothing to do with the story. Even shooting the subject through a decorative foreground screen can be puzzling at times.
Looking at production techniques critically, one soon spots current trends. They may be intriguing or interesting at first perhaps, but they soon degenerate the ultimate quality of the program:
- Loud music with a strong rhythm introduced for its own appeal but unrelated to the program subject
- A prominent repeated song lyric that has only a specious connection to the program subject
- A rapid succession of apparently unrelated shots, cut to the beat of fast music
- Constant movement in and out on audience shots to capture reactions
- Lengthy computer graphics at the start of a show that result in the production’s opening shots becoming an anticlimax
- The continual use of superficial shots that interrupt the program flow
If a shot is appropriate and moves the story forward, it can be as unusual as the director likes. But if the audience is distracted by it or begins to think about how interesting the shot is rather than focusing on the subject, then the experiment has failed.
Excerpt from Video Production Handbook, Fourth Edition, by Gerald Millerson and Jim Owens, ©2008 Elsevier, Inc. All Rights Reserved