In the hands of a master, tricks become techniques. In less competent hands, a technique can be reduced to a trick.

Here they are! Revolutionary techniques absolutely guaranteed to make your videos exciting, dramatic, hilarious. Win prizes ! Impress your friends!

Well, not quite. But there are some simple ways to punch up your tapes without depending completely on the intrinsic impact of your material. They’re not techniques; they’re tricks.

A technique furthers the theme of a piece, becoming so closely bound to content it’s difficult to imagine a scene or sequence done any other way-the newsreel-style section of Citizen Kane, for example.

A trick gets and holds the audience’s attention, like the rising, ominous music accompanying the shot of a door (a window, a house) in Friday the 13th Part XXIV.

Tricks aren’t necessarily bad or to be avoided. In fact, in the hands of a master, tricks become techniques. The aforementioned Citizen Kane example is really a brilliant trick. In less competent hands, a technique can be used so reflexively it’s reduced to the level of a trick.

But we’re not talking only Citizen Kane here; your home-grown video epics deserve this same trick treatment. Following are some of the devices I use to break up the “home movie” look and feel of my videos.

Motif

Find a secondary subject that seems to be occurring in a parallel “real” time. Tape enough footage to provide plenty to choose from when editing. Shot with the edited product in mind, the motif becomes a running commentary on the main action.

Recently, I had an acquaintance recount anecdotes from a mutual friend’s life as we shared a taxi enroute to the friend’s anniversary party. (I used a wide-angle adapter for these scenes.) At the last minute, I thought to ask him to comment from time to time on how late we were going to be.

Later, when I sat down to edit, I started with him entering the cab and beginning his monologue as we headed downtown. When he commented on our tardiness, I cut to the party. At a later point, I cut to him telling another story about our friend’s life; once again his remark about the lateness of the hour was my cue to cut back to the party.

Now the audience knew what I had in mind, and expected the cross-cutting. I did it twice more and had our arrival coincide with the party’s end.

This was my only deviation from the standard party shoot, but it made a great difference in the viewers’ reaction.

Now I look for subjects to provide this footage whenever I shoot a subject for which I haven’t any set ideas about finished form.

An easy way to obtain this material is to interview someone who’s especially knowledgeable about the subject-the zookeeper, museum curator, bride’s father-and extract as much information as possible in a single shot. You’ll have many occasions to intersperse segments of this commentary.

Reprise

Whether used dramatically or humorously, the repeated use of the same shot or scene punctuates and raises a viewer’s level of interest through anticipation.

On a hike through a rough section of state forest, a friend and I became momentarily separated from the others. I shot some footage of Bonnie’s back as she peered through the trees, trying to orient herself.

At one point, she turned to the camera and said, “Do you know where they are?” This shot, a few seconds of other-wise unremarkable material, became my “trick.”

Noting the VCR’s counter-number, I returned to this section repeatedly in the course of the tape, using all or parts of Bonnie’s search and reaction while being careful that she was not in the preceding or following shots. The challenge was avoiding overuse of this device, since opportunities arose again and again.

This “running joke” approach seems to be very well received by viewers, perhaps because it involves them with the action on some level.

It’s their joke and they keep waiting and hoping for it to pop up again. You can probably find such material in almost everything you shoot.

Just don’t overdo it in the same tape, and don’t use it in every one you show.


Audio Counterpoint

Chances are you’ve already used this one if your VCR has an audio-dub function. It’s just that: an audio dub, usually music, over your video image.

This trick deserves mention here because it can often act as a trick, an audience-grabber. The difference between this effect and a simple music track is that we’re using audio to change the content of the scene or sequence, often ironically.

Dubbing the “Ride of the Valkyrie” over ordinarily mundane action like mowing the lawn or setting the table for dinner says, in effect, that some people take this activity more seriously than others.

Music with vocals can’t help but change or at least add to a tape’s content. For this reason, pay particular attention to the lyrics ofthe songs you plan to use. You can’t get any more home-movie sappy than my footage of a little girl playing with a puppy. But when I added John Lennon’s “Do You Wanna Dance?” I covered myself against the charge of having made “just another home video.”

Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” dubbed to roller-skaters in New York’s Central Park was another pleasant surprise.

Vorkapitch Device

If you’ve seen Prizzi’ s Honor you know this one. Remember the plane flying right to left (NY to LA) and left to right (LA to NY), shown several times during the film? That’s John Huston using one of the hoariest devices in the filmmaker’s arsenal-the “Vorkapitch device.”

The first time we see the plane we think nothing of it; the second time we see it (it’s obviously the same piece of film reversed) there are a few chuckles in the audience. By the third time, everybody laughs.

In the ’20s and ’30s the Vorkapitch device was used to show passage of time or movement from place to place. It’s hard to find a crime or war movie made during that time without seeing pages flying off calendars, clocks ticking, or newspapers, conspicuously showing the date, hitting the pavement.

To show movement from place to place, we see wagon wheels, car wheels, and feet on pavement. For a change in direction, the image is reversed. For your own Vorkapitch device, simply tape a sequence again-from the opposite perspective.

Keep this trick in the back of your mind whenever you’re taping-as hackneyed as it is, it may prove useful.

Each of these four cheap tricks manipulates the viewer’ s expectancy level. After its second use, the audience anticipates it. (Audio counterpoint defies the expectancy level.)

Use these cheap tricks in original and creative ways, and your audience will share your pleasure.

Scott Lamb, an independent videomaker and freelance writer, teaches darkroom techniques to the underprivileged as a volunteer for the New York-based Rehabilitation Through Photography.

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