Getting Started: Altering Space and Time with Video

Fooling around with the space-time continuum used to be the sole domain of science-fiction writers, professors and scientists. Today it is the playground of the videographer. As a video producer, you have the power to manipulate everything your viewers see and hear when they watch your video. When successful, you control your audience’s perception of space, its sense of time and the suspension of reality.

As a creator of video, you have the power to create an entirely new universe. It’s true! With your camcorder, you can create entire worlds for your viewing audience to visit. Worlds that don’t exist outside the TV screen. Whenever you make video, you decide where your audience visits and how long they stay there. By using your camcorder to show or conceal different elements, you have control over what exists in a shot in your video universe.

A Finite Space

Despite the fact that television screens are increasingly larger these days, your video programs represent small windows into a world that you have chosen to portray. And since these windows are actually television screens, unlike the real universe, they are finite in size. As such, videography is all about determining what to show in that space, and how it should be shown.

While your audience can certainly imagine things about your universe, it is primarily concerned with the part of your world that you show at any given time. Your viewers rely on you to effectively establish the setting for your world. This can be a challenge, given the relative size and shape of a television screen. After all, it certainly is a tall task to try to cram the magnificent world of the Rocky Mountains into a flat, glass rectangle. You can actually use this to your advantage, though, because video is a medium of movement. Your camcorder is a window through which your viewers peek at your world. You can move that window through and around your world to show your them as much or as little as you want.

Imagine, for example, that you’re looking at the beautiful Rocky Mountains. Your eye can take in so much more than your camcorder. To show the entire scene to your viewers, you’ll need to move the window that they look through by moving your camcorder. Why not start by opening the window to your universe as wide as possible by zooming out as wide as you can. The pros call this an establishing shot. It gives your audience a sense of place and dimension. Fill your window with as much of the splendor as possible.

Then get creative! Use slow, purposeful camera moves to walk your audience through your world. Show the foothills. Move to some of the lower peaks. Pan slowly across the highest mountaintops, pausing at each one to provide a good impression. Let your viewers see the breadth and scope of your universe.

Feel free to zoom in for a little bit of detail every now and again. Don’t think that you need to show your universe from afar. The eagles soaring in the clear blue sky may be a part of your world that your viewer needs to see. Vast snowfields may give your audience a sense of awe.

When building your universe’s space, there are few, if any rules. Just remember that since you may have to use a lot of camera moves, use them judiciously. You’d probably hate for your world to be a place of nausea and motion sickness! It’s a good idea to stop recording while you change shots.

Existentialism 101

You’ve probably heard the question, "If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around to hear, does it make a sound?" The question might be easier to answer if you applied it to video"If a tree falls in the woods and nobody videotapes it, does it really fall?

As far as the world that you’re creating for your audience goes, that answer is a resounding, "No". Why is this question–and its answer–so important to you? Because you not only control the space your world occupies, but also everything that exists within that space. Essentially this means that if your viewer doesn’t see it or hear it, then it doesn’t exist.

To understand the impact of this fully, let’s go back to the Rockies, for a moment. What if you chose not to walk your audience through your world and decided instead, to pick a single shot, perhaps of a foothill, to show them? Imagine, then, trying to tell your viewers about this impressive mountain that stood just to the right, off camera. Sure, your viewers would try to imagine that mountain but without actually seeing it, they wouldn’t know whether it had snow-capped peaks or if it was massive or not. In fact, they wouldn’t even know of its existence if you didn’t mention it to them.

Not showing things can be a good idea sometimes. You may choose to exclude the dumpsters in the parking lot of the convenience store that you are shooting from. If you don’t show them, your audience will never know they existed. In fact, in the universe of your video, they won’t exist at all. What you capture on screen determines what exists for them and what doesn’t. The narrow focus of your lens and microphone can be used to your advantage, as you build your universe.

Suppose you want to produce a program about tax preparation for public access television. Great idea, but perhaps you don’t have an office in your home that would be an appropriate place to shoot your program. Instead, you have a garage, where you have a bunch of tools piled up on a dusty table and hardware in old mason jars on shelves. A great place to shoot your own version of "Tool Time," but less than ideal for an office set.

Why not convert that garage into a mini office? You can even use that dusty table. Clean it up, put a phone and desk set on it and your viewer assume it’s an office desk. Clear off those shelves, stock them with office supplies and voila! You’re audience will see a professional-looking office, not your garage (see Figure 1a).

Videographers and professional filmmakers do this all the time; they call it building sets. Because your viewers can’t see beyond the edges of the TV screen, they have no idea what lies beyond if you don’t show them (see Figure 1b). Only show your audience what you want them to see and that’s all they will know about your universe.

You can take this a step further and imply that certain things exist in your universe without ever having to show them. Take that office set, for example. Since it’s really in your garage, maybe there are no windows or perhaps the windows aren’t appropriate or are in a portion of the garage that you don’t want to show. Regardless of your particular situation, you can create the illusion of windows. To do this, try hanging up an old set of mini-blinds or a cardboard cutout of a window off-camera. Then shine a bright light through the blinds or cutout to cast a window-shaped shadow on a wall that is on camera. This shadow will make your viewer believe that there is a window in your office.


Relatively Speaking

Now that you’ve addressed the boundaries of your universe, you must deal with yet another dimension. Your universe must move in some sort of logical sequence. Each shot, for example, must be related to the next shot. You have the power to control the flow of time in your video.

For the most part, you don’t really have to think much about the flow of time in your video. If you’re videotaping an event, like a play, for example, the sequence usually will be chronological and logical. Your one-hour tape represents one actual hour of time. However, some other event, like a wedding, may lend itself well to effective "time management". A wedding may start at 2:30 in the afternoon with the ceremony and end at midnight when the band stops playing at the reception. That’s nine-and-a-half hours of real time. Your audience will probably not want to watch a nine-and-a-half-hour video. The answer is to condense the day into a 60 minute summary.

The trick is to show the flow of time – beginning, middle and end – without showing every second in between. Pick the best parts of the event and, with a little bit of editing, piece them together. In the case of a wedding, these might be parts of the ceremony, the happy couple climbing into the limousine while being pelted with rice, the limo arriving at the reception hall, the best man’s toast and other highlights of the reception (see Figure 2).

When you’re editing your project, you also can use transitions to signify the passage of time. Cuts imply that things are happening without a delay in time. A cut from the brides teary eyes to the ring slipping onto her finger implies that she is looking at the ring.

A dissolve implies a short passage of time. A dissolve from the recessional to the couple driving away tells the viewer that you have cut something out, but that the events took place in close succession. What did you cut out? The 45 minutes of time that it took for the 500 guests to be dismissed row by row, greet the wedding party, get their tiny bags of rice and make their way outside while the bride and groom returned to the auditorium for a few pictures with the photographer. A dissolve bridges the gap in time.

Fades signify a longer passage of time. The dissolve gets the couple from the church to the limo. A fade to black gets the limo from the church to the reception hall 50 miles away. Your viewers understand that time is passing, but they never quite know how much time. They don’t care. Your audience is treated to the best parts of the program in a time-compressed format.

Warping to the Next Level

Understanding the relation of space (your window into your universe) and time (the logical sequence of events) is the first step toward taking your video to a new level. A level where video no longer simply records events. Instead, it creates a new reality.

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