The Nonlinear Editor: Twin Cinema
Posted Apr 24, 2007

In last month's Nonlinear Editor, Men and Cartoons, I talked about the idea that event videographers are essentially genre filmmakers. What's interesting to me is how many genres have emerged within our genre—not just different styles, but different types of product offerings and different ways of approaching them. We've got photo montages, Same-Day Edits, Love Stories, Bridal Elegance videos, memorial tributes, and biographies; long form, short form, cinematic productions, journalistic approaches, vertical edits, and timeshifts. We've got genres within genres and multi-genre hybrids, like Boulevard Video's 3D Animated Photo Montages, Hal Slifer Video's Legacy Biographies, and Furlavision's Love Story Concept Videos.

Except for trademarked names and styles strongly associated with particular videographers, like the last three above, we don't all agree on what these words mean, or where one genre ends and another begins, and there's no reason we have to. And since a keynote of anyone's business in a competitive market is differentiation, producing work that's hard to categorize is in some respects a plus.

I saw a great thread on Hal Landen's Video University recently on "The Etymology of Cinematic Video." I've got my own idea of what the term means, or at least how it filtered into the language of wedding and event video—a style that's both nostalgic and a break with the past, in that it hearkens to the artifice of film and frees the videographer and the viewer from the cold and sterile look of video—but I also know how broadly it's used, in that for some a "cinematic edit" is simply a judiciously shortened, multicamera-sourced presentation of a wedding. Some of these points came up in the VU discussion. Chris Watson ventured a definition he'd included in his Supercharge Your Post-Production DVD of cinematic video as incorporating elements of high drama and heightened reality, with the connection to cinema, presumably (since most modern movies aren't like that), being the feel of fiction applied to what would otherwise be a straightforward document of an actual day's events.

But perhaps the most telling point made in the VU thread came from a poster who essentially said, "I don't care what ‘cinematic' means or if my work fits the description because it means something to my brides and gets me bookings." I like this point for several reasons; one is as a reminder that there are times to talk about art and times to talk business, and times when words mean art and words mean business. When you're making the initial sales contact that gets your work in front of a potential client, if your words don't get you business, you're using the wrong words. The nice thing about "cinematic" is that it's vague enough, yet evocative enough (unlike, say, "Same-Day Edit," which has always seemed too academic and esoteric to me) to make just the impression you want. Such is the state of our business that the first goal of our sales efforts is not so much to differentiate us from our competitors as from ourselves—that is, from the prevailing public perception of video. No bride or other social event client wants her video to look like video, and no one is more repelled by the word "video" and its worst connotations than videographers—if we weren't, we wouldn't spend so much time running from it.

Ultimately, the biggest difference between cinematic videographers and our brethren in the world of feature film is the raw material we work with. Except for documentarians, filmmakers aren't restricted to events as they happened, or handicapped by the limitations of the actual, principal players in those events. If you can write your own script, pick your own actors, and set and light your scenes, then you've got a huge advantage over anyone working in a reality-based framework. The downfall of most Love Stories and concept videos I've seen in the event video world is that you've got to work within the limits of your clients' home-grown talent, and the more ambitious or high-concept you get, the more those limits are likely to drag you down.

One thing I like about "cinematic" videos (especially the heightened-reality type) is the emphasis on cinematic score-type music. Besides the fact that videographers are less likely to use copyrighted popular songs in these types of videos (though plenty of people poach actual movie scores), the nice thing about instrumental music is that the unruly content of the song lyrics doesn't interfere with the content of the video. And honestly, when does every line of a song actually fit the video or montage it's accompanying? Last year I attended a wedding that included a photo montage at the reception. The editing was great, and the urgent New Pornographers song they chose ("The Bleeding Heart Show") swirled to a stirring climax, but lyrically it was easy to tell the couple had picked the song for two lines (one at the beginning and the other at the end) and figured people wouldn't notice the rest, which was mostly about regret and loss.

With all these thoughts of genres, sub-genres, and the use and misuse of music in wedding and event video in mind, I had an interesting conversation recently with Jennifer Hoge, a San Dimas, California-based videographer (Premier Image Productions) who has recently started offering a new product she calls the "photo montage mini-movie." Hoge's approach falls somewhere between the typical photo montage and the Love Story/concept video. It's photo-based, but it's not pan-and-zoom-to-music, and it uses words to tell a story as much as pictures. One of the first mini movies she did for a client, A Question in Time, which made use of Digital Juice animated backgrounds and audio tracks, recently won "Upload of the Day" on the Digital Juice site.

In A Question in Time, Hoge took the set of pictures the bride and groom gave her, gleaned the key elements of their meeting and courtship from discussion with them, and used what she knew about the location of their wedding (an old Hollywood Art Deco venue) to create a concept video with a hard-boiled, film noir detective story theme. In addition to using the buyout graphics and audio track from Digital Juice (instead of incorporating, say, a popular song selected by the bride and groom and trying to shoehorn it into her concept), Hoge wrote her own script and hired professional voice-over talent to handle the narration instead of throwing caution to the wind with a shaky-voiced bride or groom.

This approach, she says, has helped her to transcend the typical limitations of photo montages—and concept videos—in refreshing ways. "I've done a lot of montages with music that doesn't make sense with the photos," she says. "The music sets the tone, but the photos have no context." This is something the bride and groom don't always realize when they choose a song—they think in terms of what it means to them, rather than how it will work as a backdrop to their photos, and the impact it will have on a room full of people who don't know why the song resonates for the couple and probably won't get it just by watching the montage. "The bride and groom don't always know what they want when they pick a song," she says. "We're the experts. We need to educate them."

One key, she says, is keeping in mind the audience and what they'll experience when the photo montage is shown at the reception. "Sometimes the audience is forgotten in the production process." The video needs to satisfy the bride and groom, of course, but it also needs to be entertaining to their guests and (much as Hal Slifer often says about his Legacy Biography videos) teach them something about the couple. "What do they want their guests to get out of the video?" Hoge asks. In A Question in Time, the bride (who had a child from a previous marriage) "wanted everyone to know that the groom would be a good dad."

The mini movie gave her the opportunity to communicate that in a style that was "part real, part fiction" with an eye to entertaining the crowd. And as someone with a writing background, Hoge says, the scriptwriting element allowed her "the freedom to tell the story with the facts of their relationship."

Hoge acknowledges that the editing time for a mini movie is on the long side for a photo montage—25 hours is typical at this point, though she says she hopes to get that down to the more cost-efficient 18 to 20 hour range—but because the mini movie serves as montage, Love Story, and concept video, she gets back the time on the shooting end since there's no shooting involved, and the interviewing doesn't necessarily go that much beyond the conversations she'd usually have with a bride and groom about who they are and what they want anyway. And because she's a stay-at-home mom and "can't take on a lot of weddings," it's a rewarding way to stay in the wedding video business, albeit in a non-traditional way—"it's a way to do everything in post without having to shoot." The next step, she says, is to start providing photo montage mini movies as a service to other videographers as well as her own clients. For people who shoot and edit themselves into backlog purgatory, she says, this concept presents opportunities "for other editors to outsource [their work] to me since they may not have the time to spend on editing a piece like this."

The photo montage mini movie is not, of course, the Platonic ideal of photo montages, Love Stories, concept videos, or any one genre of wedding video, cinematic or not. But it's a valid and interesting synthesis of different genres, and a way of carving a niche that's a good reminder of the kind of creative potential and wiggle room that exists in event video these days precisely because so many good ideas are already on the table, ready to be debated, deconstructed, repurposed, and reshaped. Which sounds a lot like the continuous regeneration and reimagining of existing genres that keep that other "cinematic" scene—cinema itself—alive, kicking, and creative, too.

Stephen F. Nathans is Editor-in-Chief of EventDV.