Photo: Henrik Kastenskov

We’ve seen them a lot of times by now: the “still” video portrait, the shallow depth of field close up of eyes blinking and the time lapse of clouds howling across the sky. The plagues of the web documentary and the stain on the aspiring web documentarists’ CV.

I’ve done them myself and I promise NOT to go there again. So for the first time I’ve imposed a visual ‘No Go’ zone on my students. I used to tell them “this is a new kind journalism, it’s short format storytelling, there are no rules and anything goes and so on. Well, that was last week…

I just saw another lame cliché yesterday in an otherwise brilliant web doc and I simply got sick of it. ‘Guess it was the straw that finally broke the camels back. It’s time to move on. Now.

So here it is: my list of overdone HDSLR video clichés in a web doc:

1) The Moving Still Portrait

This one is a classic. Somebody stares into the camera in a comatose way for 15 seconds, you think it’s a still and Whoops! he/she blinks. Thanks; it worked nice in the beginning, but not anymore. If you want to add surprise to your story, try NOT to do this one!

2) The Time Lapse

By now we’ve seen anything from slugs to clouds and stars race across the screen. Usually it doesn’t propel the story forward though. If there’s no logic reason in the story for doing so, changing speed will not grant your story success, mate.

3) The Shallow Depth-of-Field trick

Another classic as old as 5D mrkII and the 85 mm f/1.2 lens. It was one of the things that lured us into doing HDSLR video in the first place. That sense of the cinematic big scope production. All for a meager 5.000+ US$. It looked amazing – and absolutely everybody is doing it by now! You don’t get ahead in this business by stepping in the footsteps of others. Find your own visual style and trust it to be good enough for your story.

4) The 50 $ dolly shot

Known as the ‘analog Kenn Burns’ or the ‘everything’s moving shot’ the low cost dolly rig was one of things that really lended an air of big budget to low cost video. It’s with dolly shots as it is with everything else in your movie: Just because you can, you don’t have to!

5) The “Meaningful Branches on a Tree Blowing In The Wind”-shot

If subjects tell their stories to camera, you sometimes need the B-roll shot in order to visually cover an incident you otherwise didn’t have access to. In comes branches, leaves, waves, time lapses (see above), out of focus shots and out-of-context photography :-( B-roll can be down right necessary, but pleeeeze – be original. Let’s see something that actually has something to do with the story.

6) The Bullet-Time slo-mo Twixtor effect.

It is with this one as with number 4). Just because you can, you don’t have to. Real world moves in real time, but sometimes it just looks too cool not to do that suuuuper slow shot. Sometimes you want to focus on that fraction of a second, that decisive moment and then let it explode. But how many decisive moments can there be in any one story? If there’s five of them, I guess the other ones weren’t that decisive then…

Apart from venting some steam like a grumpy old man, I’d like this blog post to be a homage to great storytelling. Because that is the one thing that people will talk about once they’ve seen your story. What a great story they just saw. But even the best of photographers can not compare their skills to your imagination. Because in the end, The Great Tale lies somewhere between your vision and their experience. All you can do, is hope to trigger some of that imagination.

So let the clichés die, they served their purpose. Use your imagination and move on.

All hail to The Great Tale!


Henrik Kastenskov
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