Eschew obfuscation

By Charlie White

Sometimes digital video editing involves magic. You can flash something here to attract the viewer’s eye and then over there, make something happen the viewer doesn’t see. That’s part of the thrill of producing and editing video — manipulating where people will look. But then sometimes you can give the viewers so many things to look at that they don’t see anything. In that case, you’ve broken the cardinal rule of video production: Don’t Frustrate the Viewer. Let’s figure out how to stay in the good graces of that rule.

Depending on who signs your paychecks, you may be required to place the logo of your employer (be that a network or a TV station, corporation or advertiser) on the bottom right or left of the screen. In the early days of this logo madness (they’re commonly called «bugs» —  a perfect name because they’re creepy and nothing but pests) I fought the powers-that-be in meeting after meeting, pleading my case that these intrusive logos  embossed on the screen 24/7 were not only aesthetically repugnant, they distracted the viewers from the program content.  We were, after all, Public Television, and supposedly had a higher calling that didn’t involve bugs, weasels or any other creepy crawlies. (Well, that might have been true at one time, but that’s the subject of yet another editorial, so stay tuned.) Alas, a nemesis of mine in those very same meetings trumped my purist brayings, saying (rightfully, I might add) that people are surfing TV channels more than ever these days and need to be reminded what the heck they’re watching at every minute. It’s that branding thing. Well, as the aesthete director that I fancied myself, I rebelled against anything that would sully the carefully considered image within the sacred frame. Still do. But then, commercialism and the almighty dollar inevitably overcome such idealistic utopianism. Oh, well.

OK, so we reluctantly relinquish that round to the bug lovers. But now there’s a second wave of video distraction, and it has to do with text. Lots of text. The first offender I’m talking about is the obnoxious text crawl you see streaming across the screens of commercial network affiliate broadcasts every time a rain storm is within 200 miles. Besides being unnecessary, alarmist, Chicken Little intrusiveness, it’s just a bad idea. I mean heck, it’s raining, ok? Big deal. If viewers are that scared of tornadoes, all they have to do is look out the window, or listen — everybody who experiences a tornado always says the same thing — «It sounded like a freight train.» Not a passenger train, mind you, but a freight train. They will certainly be able to hear that freight train coming and have time to take cover without bad television technique having to warn them. But what’s so bad about it? Well, it’s ineffective, that’s what. Dear readers and video artistes, there’s a principle of human capability at work here that of which everyone should be fully aware before they commit this most heinous of video crimes: Most people can’t read and listen to two different things at the same time. Yeah, yeah, you’re probably different — you can probably listen to two talk-radio programs at once while writing an email, reading this article and making breakfast.

But I’m not talking about you, the elite, the chosen ones, the masters of all you survey, and ones who read this column. I’m talking about mere mortals, the viewers of that video stuff you crank out every day. There are no two ways about it: When you put text up on the screen, viewers will read it and immediately stop listening that what’s being said. Unless the words on the screen are exactly the same as the audio track, synched up perfectly (which is a great reinforcing mechanism, by the way) the viewers will turn into readers, and will not hear your audio while they’re reading. It’s as if there’s a switch inside the human brain that can’t hear spoken words while text is wending its way inside there. Don’t believe me? Give a friend this test: Read to him or her a moderately complicated paragraph he hasn’t read before, and at the same time have him silently read a different unfamiliar paragraph. Have a little quiz afterward to see if he absorbed even a fraction of the information contained in both paragraphs. As you’ve probably already guessed, not many people will do very well on this test. Keep that in mind the next time you decide to imitate CNN Headline News with a shower of text and information all presented at the same time. It doesn’t work.

That also goes for the idea of cutting away to a full screen of text that’s different from that’s being said. This is an especially heinous vid-crime, where you’re trying to be efficient, presenting as much info as possible, but you’re running the risk of none of the facts hitting home. So if you’re going to present a full screen of text, make sure it exactly matches what’s being said, and remember, spelling counts.

But we’re not just talking about text, either. There are other ways to commit information overload and frustrate your viewers. Another vid-offense is committed by some self-absorbed auteurs, who have yet to learn how long it takes to actually see something. They think that quick cuts are interesting, no matter what. But uh-oh. Sometimes quick cuts are just frustrating, no matter how short your audience’s attention span. There’s a difference between looking at something and actually seeing it. Know the difference. If you’re trying to make a quick subliminal impression, or if you’re putting together a promo that will probably be watched by each member of your audience 50 times, you might be able to get away with lots of quick cuts. But also keep in mind, that more often than not, the only message conveyed by scads of speedy shots strung together, is that you’re an editor and that you have some fancy equipment, and you’ve put together lots of shots right here and you’re going to line them up and make them go by quickly. Good for you. You’ve called more attention to yourself than to the content. And I think the mark of the best editors is a lot like that of good waiters — you’re hardly aware of their presence.

Another ominous foreshadowing along these lines that really worries me is, now that TiVo and other personal video recorders (PVRs) are finally making inroads into TV households, advertisers will be even more tempted to adulterate the sacred frame, where they’ll want us to place ads over the lower third so that it’ll be impossible for trigger-happy viewers to zip through them. I’m already seeing that, with networks forward-promoting shows with a lower-third booger at the beginning of a segment. Eeew. Band together, editors, and resist this sacrilege!

So fight for quality, and make the magic happen. But remember that there are limitations to your viewers patience, and there’s only so much they will put up with of you and your video bag of tricks and highjinks. And all that cool equipment and software isn’t going to make this fall together automagically, either. Keeping in mind what your viewers are willing to follow, and making yourself virtually vanish into thin air, will go a long way toward changing your good editing into something great.