With so much videotaping going on, it’s been easy to notice something that protessional film and videomakers have known for years: People react to being taped and to seeing themselves on tape.
Now the significance of this observation may not be immediately apparent But any videomaker who has taped ordinary people in ordinary situations and has watched them viewing themselves on tape will recognize this reaction phenomenon only too well.
For most of us, it’s virtually impossible not to react to being taped or to seeing one’s self on tape. Call it vanity, call it self-consciousness, call it human interest-call it what you will, but consider it an inescapable aspect of videomaking.
Some people react in predictable ways. There are bashful subjects who simply hate to have their picture taken and find an escape route whenever a camera appears in sight. Curiously, these shy types are usually front-row spectators when it comes to viewing images of other people. But if they, themselves, happen to appear on screen, they’re mortified.
Then there’s the opposite type, the “performer” who loves to mug the camera, ham it up by acting silly, and whose antics can make for some pretty tedious viewing.
Perhaps the most common reaction to being taped is mild self-consciousness. You can usually tell when the camera is making your subjects uncomfortable. Tension and video phobia show in slight scowls, narrowing of eyes, tightness around the mouth, and other facial cues.
The important thing to remember about these three predictable camera reactions is that they make your subjects appear unnatural. The ultra-shy person isn’t necessarily this way all the time: same for the show-off. And few people are ordinarily self-conscious.
So, if your goal as a home videomaker is to show your subjects being themselves in ordinary situations, you must help them overcome these unnatural reactions to the camera.
What Comes Naturally
How can you guarantee that Aunt Harriet won’t hide behind a potted plant, Uncle Charlie won’t mug the video camera, or Cousin Jane’s face won’t take on the effects of anxiety when you shoot a closeup?
Here we can take some tips from the pros. Professional portrait photoraphers face self-conscious camera reactions all the time, yet still manae to capture compelling and revealing stills of total strangers.
If there’s a key to helping your subjects behave naturally in front of your camera, it’s helping them relax. Easier said than done? A few guidelines follow.
Be considerate. Keep an appropriate distance from your subjects. A camera in the face is sure to make someone self-conscious, so shoot from a distance and use your zoom lens to get in tight for those appealing and revealing close-ups. If you’re far enough away, your subjects may even forget you’re there.
Be inconspicuous, If your subjects can’t se you, or think you are hidden from their line of sight, they Will assume you are taping someone else. They will tend to relax if they think they’re not “on camera.”
Be informative. Let everyone know what you are doing. Tell people about your production, what you are trying to accomplish, and how much fun it will be to watch later on.
If people are curious about your equipment, take a few moments to explain how the camera and recorder work. Let them peek through your viewfinder for a moment or two. Help people become familiar with the videomaking process.
Be cordial. When not actually focusing through your viewfinder, make eye contact with people in the taping environment. Smile warmly, and appear as relaxed as you can. They will relax, too, if they see you having a good time.
Converse with people between takes. Ask for assistance with electrical plugs, moving furniture, or turning on lights. People love to help with productions, and allowing them to get involved in the process will help put them at ease.
Be sensitive. People will be self-conscious if they think their pictures will be unflattering. So try not to shoot people in unflattering poses or circumstances.
You don’t want your subjects to dread watching your tapes because of a few poorly conceived sequences that embarrass them. All in all, the idea is to depict people as favorably as possible.
Watch ‘Em Watching
The real payoff for helping people relax in front of your camera comes with the
screening of your home videos. What we enjoy most about showing our videos to
friends and relatives is watching them watching themselves.
People are invariably intrigued watching themselves. There is something about the
camera’s perspective that fascinates our viewers. The reactions run the gamut of
human responses: laughter, seriousness, puzzlement, coyness, mild embarrassment,
curiosity, vanity, and rationalization.
The strength and variety of reactions to seeing one’s self on videotape has
convinced us that the home video replay has importance for people far beyond casual
entertainment. Any phenomenon that elicits such intense reactions from people must
be tapping some deep-seated human condition.
Videos of your friends and relatives just being themselves in ordinary situations
have the potential to show them how they look to other people: how their body
language works, bow they come across in a crowd, how they react to other people in
their social environment, how they sound when they talk, and how they move when they
walk or dance.
Your home video camera can show people how they look to the rest of the world!
The significance of seeing yourself as others see you may be one of the more
psychologically meaningful spin-offs of the home video revolution.
Until camcorders came along. only professional performers, athletes, and the
wealthy could use instant feedback to see how they looked and sounded to others.
With most home videos no one is acting, performing, or exhibiting a highly
specialized skill. In most home video productions, people are just being themselves.
So they can watch themselves being themselves-again and again and again.
And it’s remarkable how often they do, especially with a well-made video. One
segment we shot of a family playing in the park was viewed a dozen times by the kids
and almost that often by the adults.
We could simply chalk up this fascination to vanity. But another phenomenon we
have observed tells us there’s more to seeing one’s self than boosting one’s ego. A
number of people have told us that one of the reasons they watch “their” videos so
often is that they see themselves differently each time.
A fairly typical pattern goes like this: The first viewing is the shocker. People
tend to see all the negative things about themselves. Their hair is messed up, their
posture is slouchy, and their voice is too high.
Reaction to the second viewing is almost always more positive. So, take a tip: If
someone reacts negatively to their video appearance, try a second (perhaps private)
screening right away. Usually the adverse reaction will lessen or even disappear
With third, fourth, and subsequent viewings, people not only have more favorable
reactions to themselves, they observe positive details of their behavior, body
language, or social skills that were overlooked on earlier viewings.
Some people see things about themselves that they want to change, improve, or
emphasize. When that happens, we are convinced that self-viewing can have a
beneficial impact on a person’s willingness and ability to change important self
Minding the Video Mirror
Now we are not suggesting that your camcorder could replace a good coach,
teacher, or therapist. The important point to keep in mind is that your camera is a
potentially powerful tool. If you get the reactions we have experienced. talk with
your subjects about it.
Let them know that what they are experiencing is not at all unusual. Tell them
that they are experiencing an opportunity to see themselves as others see them. And
be sure to reinforce the positive things they see reflected in your video
Reactions. You are sure to get them. So the next time you shoot some impromptu
footage of your family or friends, help them relax so they will look as natural as
possible. Depict them as favorably as you can. And introduce them to the fascinating
world of video feedback.