InFusion: Mapping the Fusion Genome
Posted Nov 8, 2010

Scrap the defining DNA that photo/video fusion evolved out of hybrid cameras. Buzz aside, fusion is, in fact, nothing new; in the overall arts arena, we used to call it “mixed media.” Hybrid equipment has just brought the concept to the fore.

I’m searching to define and delineate where fusion has come from, why it’s useful, and where it’s leading the industry—or if it’s not leading at all and is just a bunch of hype. Maybe fusion only muddies the waters, lowering the quality of imagery by masking imperfections and diluting the impact. That would mean also lowering the prestige and financial earning power of pure videography and photography. Or maybe using a variety of different elements really does create a finished piece of art that is worth more than the sum of the parts.

I think I have a pretty good take on what fusion could mean; after all, my husband and partner, Karl Arndt, and I have been mixing media for decades. And by the way, adding sound—live or music video-style—to your moving image is already a mixing of media! Let’s give the audio techs their due; their skill is an entirely separate craft, not a taken-for-granted accessory to the video image.

Here’s my hypothetical family tree of fusion:
• Video and stills from a variety of sources used together in an audiovisual presentation
• Variety of media conjoined (such as graphics or cartooning), not limited to stills and video
• Video capture melded from HD video cameras and hybrid still cameras
• Still and video images taken with one hybrid camera, one operator

Mapping the Fusion Genome

Looking again at my list, it seems to be more the “offspring” of how fusion is accomplished, not fusion as the progenitor of style. So I started peeling away the layers of hype, the feeding frenzy of geeky gear, looking for the foundation of fusion. What I’ve found there is a “food pyramid” for image makers, based on the 12 elements of outstanding imagery, conveniently defined by the Professional Photographers of America.

They are as follows:
• Impact
• Creativity
• Technical excellence of presentation
• Composition
• Lighting
• Center of interest
• Subject matter
• Color balance
• Creation techniques
• Storytelling

The things that matter most are the tip and the base of my fusion pyramid: the initial impact and the lasting, intrinsically interesting story. You’ve got to hook your viewers with a tempting visual and then keep their attention with compelling content. Skills and image quality are certainly important, but they are sandwiched in between impact and storytelling. They’re the building blocks, the supporting roles. And you’ll notice there’s nary a specific mention of the equipment itself.

We love new gear just as much as you do because new stuff is often how we find new ways to express ourselves and incidentally maintain our niche market and our income. But while contemporary gear is a terrific boost to your quality and speed of completing jobs, you can still make good images with a plastic Holga camera. It’s easy to get underway with the new, affordable equipment, but it’s by no means easy to master. Ditto for the editing software. It’s learnable over time and practice, but it’s not easy. Not really point and shoot, not really plug and play; potentially, a track that only camouflages a crude product. My search for the genome source of fusion has led me to believe that it is the ultimate art of the storyteller, a concept both complex and simple. Any and all media, equipment, and techniques are the artist’s rightful province. The only limitation is the appropriateness to the story at hand, and the only caveat is to use no technique or device simply because it’s there and you can. Your work is not a demonstration of gee-whiz gadgets and contrivances. Form and function go hand in hand. Storytelling is the art of making meaning—memorable meaning that lasts.

This may be where the importance of new and hybrid equipment comes in: Everybody has a story to tell, and affordable equipment has democratized the art. It puts storytelling within reach. We all need inspiration to practice our craft. I believe that if we’re going to strive to be the best storytellers we can be, we need to both listen to others and share our own insights. I’ve been playing the roving reporter on the red carpet, asking image makers how they’re dressing up their style with fusion production—or not. And wow, have I gotten an earful! The responses have been all over the map, proving once again that art is what you make of it. Go where your inspiration leads you. Take advantage of any and all techniques and equipment. The only thing everyone so far has agreed on bears repeating: Don’t use a particular piece of equipment, technique, or postproduction device just because you can. It’s got to be relevant to the story.

Here are some of the comments I’ve gathered:

“We see stills and video as two completely separate media. The audio and motion of video evoke a very different response than stills. We don’t want or need to duplicate the photographer,” says Trisha Von Lanken of Von Wedding Films. Therefore fusion, as it’s been defined to date, is not in the cards for her and husband and collaborator, Mark, even though they have now begun working DSLRs into their wedding production workflow. It’s true. We all want to achieve perfectly clean video capture every time and never have to resort to using “stills as a crutch” to fill in missing content.

Bob Coates, master craftsman still photographer and author (Bob Coates Photography and BC Wedding Photography), says he “specializes in not specializing,” which might lead one to expect he does fusion. However, he says he has given the matter “significant thought,” but he has not acted to implement fusion. To him, it’s a matter of sustainable skill and blue-ribbon quality rather than a convenient, effortless add-on. “In my mind, in order to do it right, I have to work on a new skill set involving sound, Final Cut Pro, editing, et cetera. Not to mention the tools to enable good steady capture. Add to that the investment in more backup equipment, training, and practicing. I find that as a one-man operation, there are not enough hours in the day to learn to do this well. And if I can’t do it well, it will not reflect well on my business.” Well said, Bob—good advice that if you’re going to do fusion, you’d better be able to do everything at a virtuoso level.

Bouncing to a comment from Keith Nicol (Photo Video Spain), he says his destination wedding clients “love the look” of fusion, but in Europe, people “don’t yet value the extra cost and the time it takes to produce [fusion] over [straight] HD video. It’s totally overhyped for video weddings because it’s primarily photographers trying to produce video rather than videographers trying to use fusion to produce something with a different feel. Fusion does not work for run-and-gun situations. It’s hopeless for capturing an entire wedding, for example, because of the issues with sound, focus, and light and the pure size of the rig.” Coming from an almost 30-year heritage of film production, Keith is so comfortable with his capture and edit processes that he reports no problem integrating fusion capture. “I’ve always captured video and photography, many times simultaneously, at the same event. It’s not a ‘revolution’ except that it’s now easier and less expensive, and for photographers, it’s a way to delve into video, without really making video!” Though not yet able to sell fusion for commercial or wedding use in his market, he is stoked with the results he’s getting for competition entries and self-promotion. I say, “Right on!”

These comments are just the tip of the iceberg, and I’ll be reporting much more in the coming months. Got your own take on fusion that you want to share? Want to argue passionately for your point of view? Debunk a myth? Suggest a new direction? I’ll be happy to interview you and broadcast your vision. Contact me at imagination [at] photomirage.com.

Sara FrancesSara Frances (imagination at photomirage.com) and husband/partner Karl Arndt collaborate in their own unique brand of Fusion as “Foto-Griots” whose work has evolved past photojournalism into what they call “Storytelling from the Heart.”