Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Future of Video : What makes 12 years a Slave an exemplary film to learn from

Newsmaker, Artist, lecturer, PhD Researcher, Digirati and filmmaker David Dunkley Gyimah

If you like Future of Video, click for From wars to music videos, a 21st Century style of newsmaking in videojournalism-as-cinema.
David discusses digital and journalism, with CNN's Christine Amanpour at the Frontline Club, London.

It is as hauntingly immersive in its compositional scenes, as it is perversely in the more difficult acts e.g. Patsy's beating. 

In its viewing, you'll likely lose yourself in its thickened oil work, unfolding a simple-to-follow plot, which is equalled by a visual poetry. 

Even in the darkest moments; the near hanging to death of Solomon, the director finds art to play out the scene.

What is evident about 12 Years a Slave, is it is an artist's film. It inhabits a world of theatrical framings; how movies were once made, enveloping hues, colours that manifest as a moving image painting.

If video could truly hail itself as the successor - a direct comparison to canvas oil painting, and what the likes of Caravaggio, or Rembrandt would have conceived - this is it. 

Recently released on DVD, I had the opportunity to watch 12 Years a Slave away from the frenzy which rightly carried the film during its Oscar run. This time around I could analyse the film's nuances.

This is reportage; the closest how I would define videojournalism-as-cinema  (my PhD thesis) as a proxy to what Steve McQueen, a moving image painter achieves.

No, I am not and would not dare compare myself to McQueen. What I am saying is 12 Years a Slave features a plenitude of styles that ironically, cyclically, define modern factual filmmaking e.g. news. In my work I identify this as a form of videojournalism cinema predicated on art.

Journalism critiquing can often be discursive, with the writer offering opinions, albeit professional, to evaluate a film. Academic critique, as undertaken by the film scholar David Bordwell (a theme he himself addresses) tends to be more explicatory and evidence-laden.

It's Bordwell's approach, which I'll try and use to delineate the film, coupled with my own sensibilities as an artist; an artist-in-residence at the Southbank Centre, with my primary focus situated in news and factual programme making.

1. Camera
McQueen's style is to shoot square on as if directing for the theatre. It is reminiscent of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman e.g. The Seventh Seal

scene from the seventh seal

Like Bergman the camera is still, and there are few privileged positional cuts. McQueen's trope is his compositional weighting, so that a character dominant in the foreground is balanced by an event in the background usually in the 3rd  of the frame (see below). 

The deep focus (as opposed to the penchant for shallow-depth-of field) invites the viewer to decode the screen - just like a painting. It's the closest to 'objective filmmaking' (read Cesare Zavattini). 

There are a number of reasons why the film could be labelled unconventional in its visual framing. In fact it's an Art movie, or to classify it correctly based on its cues, this is an artist's film.

Take this framing. Very few directors would have the courage to frame this and leave it in the edit. The image is truncated leaving nominal film frame data off screen.

Perhaps, this is one of the most extraordinary shots in the film. This whole sequence where Solomon faces near death by hanging lasts two minutes, but this one scene lasts almost one minute with no cut, no camera movement. The movement occurs in the scene. The camera's stillness is countered by McQueen's play in the empty third sector of the frame.

If you're familiar with Bela Tarr's Werkmeister Harmonies, then you'll see similarities in durational cuts and how they induce reflective thinking.

These are not new concepts; French film scholar Andre Bazin stressed the importance of long takes towards film realism in the 1950s. What's remarkable is because the average film cut today is 3 seconds that McQueen can work against the grain, could be conceived as bold.

Further evidence of Arts influence is strewn across the film. The lighting and composition e.g. Chiaroscuro which Wiki states is
in art is the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition. It is also a technical term used by artists and art historians for the use of contrasts of light to achieve a sense of volume in modelling three-dimensional objects and figures.[1] Similar effects in cinema and photography also are called chiaroscuro.

This scene from Bergman's Winter light captures the art of Chiaroscuro.
Winter light

12 Years a Slave

This shot here from Kubrik Barry Lyndon is influenced by Caravaggio.

This is Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus (1601)

And below is 12 Years a Slave

One last reference to art, which was evident was this... 

and it points to this Georges Seurat's pre-pointilism Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884).

2. Plot
If you're familiar with Bergman's films, The Silence (1963), Winter light (1962) then some of the themes collide with McQueen's.  

In Winter light, a film that drew on Bergman's upbringing, the priest is torn between infidelity and God. Just as Bergman pushes the envelope on sexuality, McQueen raises the bar in onscreen violence, but not for the sake of it. 

If you substitute sex in this description of Bergman's The Silence, for slavery, you could be referring to McQueen.

from trailer The Silence

Plot in film refers to the structure of the edit, as opposed to story which is the unalloyed narrative of the film. Here, McQueen plays with some modern tropes of Neo-Noir filmmaking. What is often called elliptical filming. It allows the filmmaker to play with different scenes out of order, and by so doing present a plot that acts to refresh the screen and make the audience work.

The scene where Solomon is drugged and ends up in chains, leads to mini flashbacks. McQueen could have let the whole scene play through from drinking wine, to throwing up, then Soloman finding himself in chains. 

3. Sound 
Sound presents the ability to elicit emotions from the viewer. Far from being subjective, the music is often used to compliment the scene, unless like Eisenstein who uses counterpoint. Music is subliminal when it works well. Interestingly Hans Zimmer is the hand here and he revives those famous chords heard in Inception, at the time this character starts to speak about her loss.

If you listen attentively you'll also hear references from There will be blood (2007).

4. Gaze
The character gaze is another trope from art movies that you find in 12 Years a Slave. Often described as breaking the forth wall, Solomon's long gaze into the camera draws attention to the artefact of filmmaking. It's no longer this subconscious act of realism.  Here's the a shot of the 'gaze' from a film called Summer with Monika, which shocked the film world when it was shown. It's Bergman again!

5. The artist's work
Artists tend to have an ambivalent relationship with their audience. I love this analogy by Bergman, but I believe he misses out an important component.

The artist can only create the work, they want, but unless they live a hermit's life they are undoubtedly affected  by the critique of others - the audience. 

They need the audience to thrive - to earn a living, but the more comfortable they become with their personal style (which by the way, has partly been shaped by the audience) the more they become individualists in starting to shun what their old audiences wants, because the artists wants to move on. 

Similarly what new audiences yearn for can also be shunned because the audience don't understand the artist's heritage. 

This is most evident in music concerts, where sometimes the artists refuses to play the one classic that has defined her work with the audience, because it no longer defines her, as she has moved on.

All filmmaking is a negotiation between several parameters. As I mentioned before it's a dynamic relationship between different techniques and styles. 

The easiest step is to learn how to shoot. More difficult is understanding different styles, some of which are 100 years old that may be deemed redundant.

Factual story e.g. news making's achilles is it invented a limited form for the screen, which a televisual literate generation are finding less than challenging today. 

McQueen up ends Hollywood's form by reviving art filmmaking with his own developed style, pointing to an understanding of the future. That the rules that defined filmmaking are less stable and that film is no longer framed by defined rules.


David Dunkley Gyimah's PhD research involved exploring the interstices of cinema, documentary and news and what makes compelling video. It is a historical and analytical framework covering the field from its inception to the present. David, an award winning videojournalist states that to understand the future of film and video is to quote award winning doc maker Dimitri Doganis, one of David's ex colleagues, to disregard the boundaries of docs, news and cinema. Play video below.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Just what does it take to make compelling stories - myth busting.

It wasn't that long ago when lean forward meant watching television. 

Television tried to ape cinema to keep viewers locked to the screen. Techniques included that old cinema trick; the popcorn stay-in on sports nights,  today its pringles. 

Its programming schedules were also devised to keep viewers on one channel with techniques such as 'tent poling'.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopediaThe term tent-pole or tentpole refers to a broadcast programming or motion picture expected to hold up (as is the function of a tent pole) and balance out the financial performance of a movie studio or television network. It also refers to movies that are expected to support the sale of ancillary tie-in merchandise.

Individual storytelling in docs and factuals also followed a pattern. A style developed called the television documentary. It was an elongated news features, with all the earnestness to boot.

The reporter's voice carried the narrative and the visuals adequately knitted the story together. In the more visually aesthetic school of the 60s, Cinema Verite schooled a generation to up the ante.

The hypocrisy of the Cinema Verite approach, albeit unintended, still meant off camera asking your subject what they were doing today and whether it was filmable. So much for not interfering.

And herein ladies and gentlemen lies the first problem for creating compelling video.

Compelling video comes from generally well define variables, each of which can be delineated into a thesis, but broadly you can shape compelling video by its:

  • the content ( if you take pictures of cats, you get cats)
  • the style of genre - meaning TV docs differs from Cinema Verite
  • the style of the filmmaker.
  • the period of the style and the audiences reception. That means docs in the 1980s are different to docs and audience of 2000.

Of all of these, personal style and picking the right content is something you can develop. I'll come back to these, The really tricky one for the professionals is how different periods require differing approaches.

'It's the audience, stoopid' to paraphrase Clinton. And the logic goes like this. The audience you once knew in the 1990s is not the same as the audience today. Meaning the personal style you used to win awards, is markedly different to the style appreciated by audiences today. 

Just listen to this rare critique of a BBC executive speaking about how his colleagues are challenged by twitter and criticism. 

 YouTube and its bespoke audience - the new lean forwards make demands on programme styles that are fundamentally different ten years ago.

The tropes, cues and styles that made traditional news and doc making compelling has changed because the audience needs have changed.

The Cinema Verite or award winning classic doc may bag you an audience, but as mass viewing goes, the audience have cottoned on to something else.

It's a world of YouTube and Netflix, where once sacrosanct rules of movie making existed, and still do for television, for online with its massively growing audience, the rules are are absurd, defunct, old hat.

That doesn't mean you can't still watch Nanook of the North and think it's a cracking film, but that the mass audience yearn for something that indulges in contemporary practices.

The question is what are those? As a filmmaker who specialises in forms as well as a researcher I'm continuously testing audiences to find out what these parameters are.

Audience define the culture and sociology of viewing habits. It's the reason, Hollywood continues to remake classics, because of what audiences are looking for.  What worked ten years ago may not necessarily work now.

In my six years PhD research, this is where it gets interesting and in the next few posts I'll illustrate more details about the audienece and making compelling videos.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

From wars to music videos, a 21st century style of news making - videojournalism-as-cinema. linear and spatial new media mobile films

Last month I was invited to meet a band: Thabo and the Real Deal, who via their work and manager Kienda Hoji, have been talked about as one of the most exciting bands in 2014.

The background to meeting the 4-piece Huddersfield group was they'd been asked to come to London to play a set to industry insiders. Only 100 tickets were issued inside a venue that could take 800. 

Their manager, Kienda Hoji, wanted to know if I would like to hang out with them. I'd previously seen their track World War Free and was utterly mesmerised. So I said yes, but had no idea what I would film or where, so everything in the video above emerges from incidences that need to be pulled together quickly to form a narrative.

Thabo and the Real Deal's supporters include Naughty boy behind the hit La La La ft Sam Smith, Professor Green, who their lead singer Thabo has recently collaborated with, and actor Idris Elba  (Luther) - another collaboration. 

Telling a story about a band or artist often involves the ubiquitous music video. Its inbuilt logic acts to reinforce the bands intended branding: how they see themselves, or want to be viewed.

Miley Cyrus Wrecking ball, bookending twerking, is everything James Dean did to stick two fingers up at suburbia in the 50s - a brand legend was born. Madonna has successfully done this too. The music video serves an important function between artistry, commerce, the fanbase and identity and is often a fictionalised story.

MTV and various music outlets will regularly feature news on a band; nothing new here. News offers the audience facts and representations of the musicians,  however, it fails as a pieces of visual artistry to offer some of the tangible effects you might get from a documentary. 

That is because while a doc maker follows the band, they get themselves into privileged areas and see/ hear things news maker miss, unless its caught by the world's citizens journos.

The music industry has a rich history of documentary making on musicians. Some of my favourites e.g. Maysles Gimme Shelter (1970) featuring the Rolling Stones and Madonna's Truth or Dare (1991). 

Hanging out with Albert Maysles behind the epic doc Gimme Shelter (1970)

However, though we've come to accept the elasticity and mutability of the documentary form in the 21st century, in that the form called documentary is now so listless that anything can be called a doc, there are still identifiable tropes.

  • It's recognisable by its Cinéma vérité feel.
  • The films authorship is muted to often reflect the subject.
  • The making and posting occurs over a period of time e.g. 1 month - a year.

Somewhere on the peripheries of these two established forms: documentary and news making is one of several new factual art forms. One of them is called: videojournalism-as-cinema.

From Wars to Music Video
Discussing conflict and digital with Christiana Amanpour at the Front Line Club

It is a form that is as malleable for covering wars as it is music videos and is as much about the subject matter being produced as the artist behind the lens.

Unlike docs, it has a quicker turnover and is what I call a 'visual plenitude'.  It has many styles and hybridises the music video genre between news-docs and music videos, yet paradoxically it has a unique line of identity and origin. It is corporeal, sonic (sound is crucial as an assault on the senses) and it is haptic.

The videojournalism-as-cinema form is a style that I have had the pleasure of demonstrating at SXSW, the International Journalism Festival and speaking at Apple.

Showing a video made on Moby playing in France, at Apple store, London

Among many news socially engineered terms describing 21st Century media, a feat that took 6 years travelling across the world, videojournalism-as-cinema is featured in my PhD thesis. Inside and  over 100,000 pages I provide evidence of how it works, where it came from and what it does and how it wraps around discursive new media forms e.g. websites, mobile etc.

I won't bore your here. However, what I would say is the videojournalism-as-cinema is as much a philosophy as a form that provides a cinema experience imbricating news and docs. It is highly decorative and shares authorship; it is much my film as it is about the subjects. It can be subjective but adheres to the principles of 'truth telling'.

Here below is one of the UK's most innovative film scholars, Mark Cousins,  talking briefly about what he thinks it is.

Given the appetite for fan bases to know more about their idols, the form offers more than news and docs in meeting audiences demands. 

It's also tied to a social media ideology of creating bespoke sites to reflect the videojournalism-as-cinema form and thus populates the indentity of subjects. Below is one of my films and sites for 8 Days.

I'll be speaking more about this at the British Film Industry event, examining the future of news. One thing to bare in mind, videojournalism-as-cinema is implicitly driven by the audience and unlike videojournalism which connotes a certain news form, it is paradigmatic of the way we consume media in the 21st century.

David Dunkley Gyimah is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Westminster and videojournalist. He is an industry presenter on new media forms and has consulted for several brands e.g. BBC, Press Association etc. He is next talking at the BFI event on next generation TV.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Rules of change: how the next big thing out did Facebook, Twitter and video

In 1974, Ghana, a progressive country in Africa with a population of 10 million, overnight switched from driving on the left hand drive to the right. 

2012 saw Facebook change a rule on users' photographs after it acquired Instagram. Instagram could use user's photographs as they wished. Onliners apoplectic with rage voted with their feet causing Facebook to renege. 

In his John Ford's epic 1939 Western Stagecoach, one of the fundamental 'rules' of filmmaking was shredded. Ford's chase scene continually and wilfully crosses the line. One moment, the chase is left to right, then its right to left.

What these all have in common is that a rule has been overturned and by default demonstrates 'rules', are not fixed. 

Rules exist as an agreement between users, often created by powerful bodies to create commercial enterprise.

I mean would you buy a book that didn't teach you how to tweet, how to film with the rule of thirds, how to sample sound. These rules derive from agreements, whose origins can often be questionable. 

One of the biggest contentious so called rules, is the way television news is made. Have you ever asked how it came to be made that way, and then realised, a couple of people, with no TV experience came up with an idea and that was that?

Today, television is produced in a uniform, world-wide govern rule. funny! Rules, however are transient and none more so that in the creative fields. 

In the arts, fashion, music - fields that thrive on innovation and creativity, the very idea of a rule is bunkum.  A rule is nothing more than a guideline to aid the novice.   

And if a rule, or to be precise a convention did exist, the innovative creative lot would just as well break it.

Twitter experts state you need a hashtag, link to something and a couple of @s to make your tweet fly. But this 'rule' only works when users of a certain place, time, culture agree. 

In five months time, it could be something else. In five months time, the seeds of a new 'Twitter-like' app may be in the throes to go big, because our habits have changed.

And that's the key. So called 'rules' which are really guidelines exist because of the patterns of behaviour, a certain set of people exhibit.

We like volume, so 33m followers is better than 3000. But at some point 33m users becomes meaningless when in the 3000 followers the user gets quality feedback.

In the digital age, the concept of the 'rule' that defines what we should do is  contestable and malleable.  The very idea of a 'rule' is nonsense because of the 'mutability' of digital. Concepts and materials in digital can change and be transported elsewhere.

What exists in a photoshop image can be manipulated to become a data visual set in data journalism and also inserted into a film. 

The practical outcome at realising the rule, is that in order to be on top of your game, you need to be aware what your target audience agrees.

Society sets itself up in a Darwinian fashion. Twitter would not have worked in the 1950s post-war because we were a society that hid things, suspicious of the enemy in our midst.

Decades on we've forgotten and become blase to security. This coupled with the rise and rise of the 1960s fame culture means we're all too ready to a) become stars, b) share what we're doing.

In years time, that behaviour will change. Will, because the trends have shown that societies and cultures do change and when they do, the agreement of users breaks down to evolve into something else.

Facebook connects us virtually, but what about an app that does it metaphysically? I have seen this on display in China. Or what about a time when we generally don't want to be connected in the way Facebook manages our affairs.

What if we didn't need to tweet, because an app existed that allowed us to store voice data,  which was accessible via speech. Think Star Trek's Holodeck. Again I have seen this work.

The reason why they haven't taken shape is that society as a movement has not made those demands on the technology. But it will, in the same way, one moment we had no use for 3D and now 3D Ocular glasses could be all the rage soon in sharing virtual communities.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Birth of a station

Birth of a Station by Mike Pearce documents the making of Channel One and the birth of videojournalism in the UK in 1994. Uploaded by one of the videojournalists David Dunkley Gyimah

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Perugia's inimitable journalism festival - Why you need to be there

Perugia - tucked in the clouds
Just what is it that has made a journalism festival tucked away between Rome and Florence, situated on a hilltop, a must-go-to festival?

Perugia's cultural resonance - art, paintings, and architecture - is explicit on arrival. The town appears as an interconnected canvas bridging a kaleidoscope of frescos.  Unsurprising when you read its history.

To the odd news hound, this rustic town is where a contemporary mystery has brought into sharp focus the legal systems of the US and Italy. That is the unsolved murder of British student Meredith Kercher.

On my way to Perugia, after a 2-hour plane journey from Stanstead, I share a taxi with two behemoth speakers, Fusion's Felix Salmon and Joanna Geary, head of news Twitter UK.

Felix suggests if you're going to stage a festival, the more the location is as far removed from a city, the better. Attendants become absorbed in the area, with little 'city-like' external distractions. 

David presenting at SXSW
Utah, where Sundance stages its film festival, conjures up images of canyons and dust devils; SXSW where I have spoken transforms Austin, Texas, into one giant tech jamboree, and Perugia?

Perugia, if you love retreats, is an idyllic busman's holiday. It's compact, facilitating active mingling between delegates, and the speakers and the audience.   

In a relatively short space of time, the festival's indomitable driving force Christopher and Francesca ( and their staff)  have created a phenomenon. 

It's intriguing to know how the idea came about and then sold to the town, because it is now a cultural event with shops, restaurants and the tourism center playing their part. 

Notwithstanding the influx of international journalists, students and free-to-attend sessions for the public, in the short space I was there, it was obvious Perugia is also a cultural tourism hot spot.

Coaches arrive and offload swathes of tourists; yesterday was labour day and the evening was capped with a pop concert.

Videojournalism talk
Scores of sessions addressing a wide range of journalism topics makes Perugia's event a physical wikipedia.  My talk was one of the earliest presentations and because of that I had little idea how many people would attend. It was billed as New Narratives in Videojournalism - a title designed to provoke curiosity.

Fortunately, we had a good turn out. I'm thankful to @journalismfestival for all their hard work and all those who spent their time listening and contributing to the debate. 

I made this a day later to add further context cinema journalism.

Though the listing shows Marwan and I as presenters, Marwan graciously allowed me the bulk of the time to present my thesis. He would be at the heart of a presentation the following day giving inside expertise on Syria. 

The heart of my talk, which is an element of my PhD thesis is that the 60-year old TV/Video news model is not quite up to the job for reporting various events in the 21st century. 

Newspapers have reformed, and adjusted to the times. In the 60s faced with the arrival of television, print journalism adopted a range of tropes. It couldn't compete with the immediacy of television news, so contextual and commentary reportage became a dominant part of its journalism.

Language evolves, as societies and cultures grow.

Amazingly, television news' lingua franca has not changed very much. These aren't my words, but that of  industry leaders I interviewed during my research, such as Deborah Turness, one of the world's most powerful news executives


Play the promo to hear what industry leaders say about news' story form.

My presentation spoke about the methodology of my research. I have worked in the TV News and Radio  since 1990 and on the net since 1998.

Hence, I used my own journey as a research thread called autoethnography / reflective practitioner. I have been with a slew of organisations that challenged journalism styles e.g. Channel 4 News, BBC Newsight and BBC Reportage. Below, I'm reporting from South Africa's landmark elections in 1994.

Reporting from South Africa between 1992-1994

But I also used ethnography, that is studying in-depth two communities: Britain's first videojournalists and some of the world's best videojournalists.  This was then critiqued using expert opinion; some of those figures seen in the trailer, as well as using a wide array of literature.

Cinema journalism, but not as you know it - perhaps
Cinema, the new language of news
The essence of my talk was that cinema, not cinematic, but cinema was enriching journalism when used by key news makers. It doesn't replace current narrative journalism forms, but evidence shows the audience are drawn to it.

Cinema, I explained was first coined to mean factual constructions of events. It was Hollywood that hijacked the term to denote fiction. But even in its modern parlance, fictional film tropes and cues used ethically can enrich a film, while still retaining its journalism.

I showed one of several examples I researched, which Journalism.co.uk included in their report of the event. Often experts state the difference between newspaper videojournalism and Television is how newspapers have co-opted the cinema verite approach.

I disagree. This may appear so because a large number of newspaper videojournalists use cinema verite, but in principle this division is an artificial one. 

I helped set up and run the UK's Press Association's videojournalism programme and often the reason why newspapers did not voice their reports was that they were self-conscious of their own voice. 

Former Washington Post videojournalist Travis Fox's piece, you'll find in the Journalism.co.uk report, is a voiced piece. Something more interesting is going on which explores the complexities of cinema.

Complexities because unlike television news' language, cinema, as the scores of books, 8000 plus in English, show cinema is difficult to define, but you know it when you see it.

Or should that be, my research with audiences demonstrates they can tell the difference between cinema fact and cinema fiction. 

Cinema does not also exclusively imply linear narrative. It can also reference spatial story forms, which is why the web and html is a suitable medium to revive cinema's early incarnation.

This image below shows on the left a zoetrope from the 19th century, while on the right, the cube, my spatial cinema narrative on graduates being recruited the CIA

Similarly, the Outernet, which was displayed on Apple's site for several years is also an indication of where we're going.

The recording of our presentation will be online soon, so you can see what you make of the rhetorical arguments I pose.

But there are wider significant points. Cinema is agnostic to platforms and linear forms, so whether you're a data journalist or social media boffin truly understanding what cinema can do, is worth exploring. 

However, if, as my research shows cinema is a tour de force and the use of 'cinema' here alludes to 21st century styles, then the way we teach journalism generally and videojournalism in particular requires attention.

end ++

David Dunkley Gyimah is a senior lecturer at the University of Westminster, artist-in-residence at London's Southbank Centre and videojournalist and coder. He is next speaking at the British Film Institutes Media Conference