|On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney|
|TV mediates viewers' perceptions|
|© 1999 Michael Turney||Table of contents||Practicing Public Relations||About the author|
When we watch television, we see only what the camera operators and director have chosen to let us see and we hear only what the audio engineers and director have chosen to let us hear. We don't know what was edited out or in. Nor do we know how much the recorded images were processed and modified.
Television's ability to "mediate" and affect viewers' perceptions should be a matter of critical concern to every thinking person. I explained why in my article on "Managing personal and organizational encounters" when I talked about perceptions and wrote: "Insofar as public relations practitioners -- or anyone else -- can influence people's perceptions, they can affect how those people will respond to another person or an organization. And, like it or not, what we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste can be controlled, adjusted, and manipulated in countless ways over a wide range of intensities." Film-makers, video-makers, and other decision-makers within the television industry are certainly included in that range of "anyone else" to whom I referred.
Video and motion picture camera operators and directors not only determine what is seen, they affect how it's perceived.
To the extent these film and video-makers affect how viewers perceive what they are seeing, they can have tremendous impact on how the people who eventually watch their finished program or news report will feel about the people and events they see on the screen. Let's consider a fairly simple example based on a very common situation that is frequently seen in television newscasts. Assume there is one average-looking woman, possibly a government official or business executive, who is standing facing a moderate-sized group of people (maybe 20-30) who are sitting on folding chairs, facing her, while she talks to them.
Here are just a few examples of how the camera operator's decisions about shooting this situation, whether they are guided by a director or left to the camera operator's volition, can affect viewer's perceptions.
- Typical news shots showing the woman speaking to the audience could be taken from behind the audience facing her or from behind or off to the side of her facing the audience. They would be medium-distance or full-length portrait style shots that showed at least her head and shoulders and at least a part of the audience.
- If the speaker's full face is shown in the screen image and the camera lens is at, or just below the speaker's eye level, and tilted slightly upward, it is likely that viewers will feel that she is projecting an aura of power and confidence.
- With same framing and her full-face still on the screen, if the camera lens is at, or below her shoulder level, and is therefore angled more steeply upward, the shot will look much more dramatic. But, viewers will be much more likely to think that she is aloof and projecting an aura of arrogance. -- The lower the camera and the sharper its upward angle, the more noticeable the effect will be and the more negatively she'll be perceived.
- If, instead of a medium shot showing her full face, tight head-shots (especially ultra-tight ones that show only part of the speaker's face) are used, they'll emphasize her facial features in a way that reveals every line and wrinkle. Such shots will make almost anyone look old and/or tired, and they generally elicit a less favorable reaction to the person. In some rare instances, where the person ends up looking vulnerable or "battered by the situation," viewers may feel sorry for and sympathize with her.
- If the scene is shot with a diffusion lens (or with a regular lens that is intentionally left slightly out of focus), the image on the screen will have a "soft-focus" or gauzy look that is usually believed to convey an aura of mystery and romance. It's a technique that's widely used in formal portraiture, glamour photography, and motion picture love scenes because it helps viewers relate to and feel more favorable about the subjects.
Background and cut-away shots also contribute to how a scene or event is perceived.
Assume we're still talking about filming a news event that features a woman speaking to a group of seated people. "Cut-away" or "fill shots," usually without any sound of their own, would be edited into the film/tape of the speaker's presentation to provide visual variety so the audience doesn't have to look only at her the entire time, or to denote a transition from one subject to another, or to indicate that a portion of the presentation has been cut out. They might include shots showing audience reactions, a chart or other visual the speaker is talking about, a close-up of the speaker making a particular point, the surroundings in the room, or almost anything else. They have no audio of their own because the viewers will usually continue to hear the speaker's voice while the cut-aways are running.
Even though the speaker is supposed to be the main event and will most likely draw most of the audience's attention, the cut-aways still make up enough of the total package that they contribute to mediating the perceptions and predispositions of the audience.
- What kind of people are shown as being in the audience? -- Men or women? Young or old? Well-dressed or slovenly? -- Are these the kind of people the viewers can readily identify with, or are they the kind of people the viewers would normally try to avoid?
- Do the audience members shown in the cut-aways seem to be listening intently, or do they look bored beyond belief?
- Are the audience reactions that are being shown consistent with the ways an audience would be expected to react? Do these audience reactions seem natural and unforced, or do they look like they're being stage-managed in some way? Are they consistent with the viewers' personal reactions?
Obviously, the visual content chosen for the cut-aways makes a huge difference in viewers' perceptions. But, so do the choices of camera angle and focus used in the cut-away, just as they make a difference in shooting the primary scene.
- If the camera is at or slightly below the eye level of most of the members of the audience and a group of them is essentially shown in profile, looking at the speaker, it will convey the impression of an attentive and respectful audience.
- Similarly, if the camera is positioned in the same way, at or slightly below eye level and directly facing only one, two, or three members of the audience, it will also convey the impression of an attentive and respectful audience.
- But, if the camera is placed lower and angled so it's looking up at the audience, it will project the impression of a strong, powerful, and perhaps even over-powering "crowd" rather than an attentive and respectful audience. The more extreme the angle, the more ominous the impression becomes.
- And, on the other hand, a high camera angle, looking down on the audience, will suggest that the speaker is also looking down on them and that she considers herself superior to them.
Using a telephoto lens or setting a zoom lens for its largest magnification and then leaving it on that setting without doing any other zooming also yields a different feel than shooting the same scene with a normal lens.
- With a telephoto lens, framing the shot so includes the speaker and the audience, will visually compress the image and can make the audience and speaker appear much closer together than a regular lens would. Many people believe that this apparent physical proximity also suggests intellectual and/or emotional proximity as well.
- Also with a telephoto lens, but framing the shot so it only shows the audience and includes audience members who are right at the edge of the frame on both sides, or are even cut in half by the edge of the frame, will make the audience look much denser and possibly even larger than it would otherwise appear.
Even the audio and the music make a difference in how a scene/event is perceived.
It may seem simplistic or too obvious to be true, but research has repeatedly shown that crisp, clear, properly modulated audio that is easy to hear and understand would create an impression that the speaker was just as clear and forceful in her thinking as in her speaking.
Conversely, if the audio is full of static or otherwise distorted, if it's hard to understand what's being said, if there's loud or obnoxious background noise, or if there is simply not enough volume to easily hear it, it will give the impression that the speaker was confused, uncertain, or muddled in her thinking
Adding lead-in or background music can also have a dramatic effect. Music that is well known to the audience and emotionally evocative can predispose the audience, in favorable or unfavorable ways, before the main program/message has even started.
- In extreme cases, music which conflicts with the message, for example a light-hearted and happy tune being used as a lead-in to a somber or tragic news report, message, could totally reshape the way the entire message/program will be perceived.
- And, just think how differently two sets of viewers might react to a speaker delivering the same speech if one group hears the theme from Rocky before the speech starts and the other group hears the theme from Jaws.
This is a small sampling of the effects and impact composition, camera angles, framing, and audio "sweetening" can have on viewers' perceptions of a person or event that appears on television.
Skilled film and television directors and camera operators spend years mastering these techniques, usually getting their first exposure in school and gaining further experience working in the field. Public relations practitioners who hope to create and manage images that will be presented on television also need to learn about these techniques and the decisions that are required to use them effectively.
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