Viewfinder: TV: Your Personal Technique Tutor

One of video production’s most critical elements is lighting. Quality lighting distinguishes a professional-looking video from a homemade video. Bright spots and dark spots are poor-lighting giveaways. Beyond that, a skilled lighting operator conveys the illusion of depth, which is very hard to do on a two-dimensional screen.

Lighting variables generally fall within two categories: the equipment and the skill on the set. An expert in video lighting can make professional-looking video with a bunch of cheap lights from a hardware store, while an unskilled person will probably produce poor video even with the most expensive lighting tools. Skill is the most important variable in lighting.

Watching TV is a great way to learn lighting principals and develop your lighting skills. Turn off the sound. By doing this, you are better able to remain removed from the TV program’s content. Your goal is to dissect the TV show into a series of shots. Each shot is comprised of many elements including composition and lighting. To build your lighting knowledge, watching a series of video shots is much more educational than simply watching a TV show (unless of course it’s a show on lighting techniques). A videotape is a better tool, as you can freeze-frame and rewind it to reexamine a shot.

You can also learn a great deal about lighting at the movie theater. While it is not possible to rewind or turn off the volume in the theater, the much higher resolution offers you better learning prospects than a typical TV set.

Many of the same learning methods apply to composition, which is an art form unto itself. Similar to lighting, composition contains many variables. Thousands of camera positions and zoom-lens adjustments are possible for each shot. The challenge is to utilize shot composition to tell the story. A skilled camera operator can tell a story with composition alone, without dialog or music.

You can also develop your sound skills by watching or carefully listening to TV. Paying close attention, you will notice, almost always, that bird sounds emerge when a scene changes from an indoor shot to outdoors. Bird sounds are an excellent way to communicate the concept of outdoors, even if it’s a winter scene, and real birds have all flown south. You’ll also notice that TV sounds are much more vivid and crisp than in real-life. In an effort to build realism, sound effects are often exaggerated. The opening of a candy wrapper, recorded with the mike very close to the candy is one example of an exaggerated sound bite. The only way you’d experience that in real life would be to place your ear next to a wrapper.

You can learn lots about video by paying close attention to what you see on TV – as long as you can avoid watching the TV show itself.

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