Still loving stills, but appreciating the authenticity of video

Stills remain my first love … I even called my company Still Images Inc. when I founded it. But eventually I changed the name to Kindig Omnimedia and then simply Ztories as I perceived that audiences are increasingly media agnostic. All the arrows in the quiver are just tools that serve the storytelling. Note: As I move to Seattle in November, I’ll create a new LLC called either Ztories  or Ztoryteller … which do you like better? Or do you dislike them both? 🙂

But there has been a major shift in the subliminal impact of each medium upon audiences. I got to thinking about this when I responded to a very thoughtful comment by David Patton of Waggener Edstrom on the value of stills in corporate communication, especially presentations.

It seems to me that the perceptions of what’s real or authentic have shifted.  At one time high-resolution stills felt real — photo-journalistic. Then video came to the corporate market, but cameras were clumsy, lots of light was needed, everything was shot with a zoom lens on a contrasty, light-hungry chip… and the end result was that in my view, video had a show-biz air about it, while slide shows felt much more realistic, and therefore much more credible. At least, that’s what I told my clients until they forced me to use video.

Today, with available-light video cameras in most people’s pockets, I would say that video feels as immediate and real as 35mm still pictures ever did. How many people do you know who even shoot with a still camera that big? Only pros and serious amateurs use today’s digital SLRs, and they get higher resolution than large-format (2-1/4 or 4×5) film cameras ever delivered. Most folks shoot with camcorders and tiny duoformat cameras & cell phones. When disgruntled voters rioted in Iran, that’s the kind of imagery that documented it. When we see the world through our friends’ eyes on Facebook, that is the technology formed our perceptions.

In the meantime, the quality of  still cameras has evolved from merely real to sublime. Amazing lenses, timelapse options, and image editing software have now electrified high-end photography with the mediated identity that video once claimed. In most cases, a quality still image can still arrest attention, while digital snapshots and endless hours of unedited video fill our hard drives with too many shots to sort, and too much video to watch. Unless what is unfolding in front of the camera is amazing or surprising — or unless there’s a very creative editorial approach — video may enjoy a claim on credibility but it has lost the fascination it once enjoyed simply because the pictures moved.

And then there’s the “Ken Burns effect”, which once breathed new life into high resolution stills by making them move. That, too, seems to now feel a little over-used and “low-budget”, just as the banal world of video has become. The effect is cool for conveying historical weight, elegance, and clarity of focus. But even Ken Burns uses high def video/film whenever he can.

Compare his use of stills at the beginning and end of this clip

[How Yosemite Got its Name – http://www.pbs.org/nationalparks/watch-video/#642)%5D

with what he did here:

[The Indian Idea of Sacredness – http://www.pbs.org/nationalparks/watch-video/#755%5D

When he has a choice, Ken is going to use the incredible realism of high definition video or film to tell his story.

And these days, with these cameras, I now prefer cinematic media for that kind of storytelling, as well.

It seems to me, on balance, that well-lit, stable high-def video ought to be the medium of choice whenever a company wants to convey gravitas and photo-realistic credibility; small video cameras with edgier movement and simpler storytelling and lower production values are the best way to deliver documentary style or photo-journalistic impressions.

For dramatic and persuasive storytelling, cinema is still the king of content, and gaining ground. It’s now the only thing (except their Facebook page) that most young people are willing to give their undivided attention to for hours at a time.

But for sheer artistic impact and the crystallization of imagination or reality, still images have regained a lofty place near the center of the visual pantheon.

When you want to tell an audio-visual story about historic events that involves more than dialog and action; when you want to capture the essence of an idea or person, or disturb viewers through visual storytelling, then still images are “still” a great way to go.

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One Response

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