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Directing Our Attention
Written August 23, 2001


When I learned television three decades ago, one of the principles was that each camera shot should make a "picture statement" about a particular subject.

Colby Lewis, in The TV Director/Interpreter, wrote that there are just two reasons for changing to a new picture statement:

(1)  To direct attention to a new subject.

(2)  To reveal a new aspect of the same subject in order to emphasize a different point about it.

If you don't have something new to say, cutting to a new shot is just a distraction.

For example, here's a recent photo of West College Street in Oberlin, Ohio.  I've cropped it to make three different statements.

Look, there's
activity downtown.

Notice, a car has been
parked at the curb.

See, two people are
having a conversation.

For more than half a century, this has been a fundamental technique of television.  The director shows the viewer different shots in succession, directing his attention to each new picture statement.

But television is changing.  We're in the process of upgrading from the old "standard definition" picture to a movie-like widescreen "high definition" picture.  Standard definition has 0.3 megapixels per frame, high definition 2.1 megapixels.  It's a dramatic change.  Our canvas will be seven times as large — like this.


No longer will we be restricted to the 0.3 megapixel peephole.  Now, if the director wishes, he will be able to provide the "big picture" and let the viewer choose for himself what he wants to see.  The viewer's eye can wander from the two people, to the trash receptacle, to the bookstore in the background, to the parked cars, to the pavement damp from a recent rain.

Sometimes this would be a disadvantage.  The point of the scene might be the conversation in the foreground, but the viewer might miss that point while looking at such irrelevant details as those red and yellow balloons across the street.  So the director should frame the scene to keep the viewer focused, using well-established cinematic techniques.

But sometimes it would be an advantage to allow the viewer to choose which part of the picture he wants to look at.  This is especially true when unscripted events are televised, or several things are happening at once.

Imagine a hockey game in progress.  If the viewer is presented with a high-definition view of two-thirds of the ice, he'll have the same experience that he would have if he were at the game in person.  He can choose to direct his attention to the players with the puck, or the line change taking place in the bench area, or the goalie, or the interesting spectators behind the glass in the corner.  When a goal is scored, he can look at the celebrating scorer or at the other team's dejected bench, whichever he wants.

This isn't an option in standard definition TV, because if standard cameras pulled back to show two-thirds of the ice, you wouldn't have enough detail in any one area to see what was going on.  The director must ignore the bench area and the goalie in order to zoom in on the players with the puck.  When a goal is scored, he cuts quickly to the celebrating scorer, then to the dejected bench, then to the happy players on the ice, then to the dejected goalie, then to the happy fans, making a number of statements in quick succession.

Or consider a discussion show, for example "Politically Incorrect" with its host and four guests.  In standard definition, we generally see only one or two people at a time.  We miss some of the reactions of those who are not on camera.  But in high definition, we could be shown all five people at once, and with enough detail so that we could look at whichever faces most interest us — whether or not those people were talking at that moment.  (The same opportunity is available in other genres, from rock concerts to presidential inaugurations to boxing matches.)

However, I'm afraid that this won't happen.  The director who stays with a wide shot of five people for five straight minutes might be providing us viewers with the best option, but he would not feel he was earning his pay.  And his bosses might agree with him.  Rapid cuts are presumed to generate excitement, to keep the viewers interested.  TV directors are supposed to make new statements every few seconds by cutting to a different angle.  That's what they do.

So I fear that when high definition becomes the norm, instead of being able to watch the discussion or concert or game as if it were taking place in front of us, we'll be subjected to the same constantly shifting points of view that we get today.  A large proportion of the shots will be excessively detailed closeups of one athlete or perfomer.  During those times, we'll be able to see every pore on Bill Maher's face plus the widescreen background to his left and right, but we won't be able to see his guests at all.  That would be wasting an opportunity. 



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