Shooting the Game vs. Shooting the Story

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February’s Sochi Olympics marked the first time I’d watched more than a few minutes of the Winter Olympics since the Lake Placid Olympics of 1980, when I was the same age my 10-year-old son is now. He’s no more caught up in the socio-geo-political importance imposed on these Olympics than I was 34 years ago (1980 promising Cold War one-upmanship and relief from recession/hostage crisis malaise; 2014 juxtaposing legitimate outrage over current-day civil rights abuses in Putin’s Russia and frightening developments in Ukraine with a #SochiProblems social media meme that reveals American exceptionalists at their arrogant first-world worst). Signs of the times aside, the winter sports spectacle is obviously as big a deal for my son now as it was for me then.

Of course, we’re watching the events a bit differently, whether catching them on TV or online. We’re both bemused by the stilted, ski and shoot randomness (True Lies notwithstanding) of the biathlon. He’s mesmerized by just about any performance on skates. As I’m currently producing an online promo video for a local figure skating coach, I’m closely watching the skating events not so much for the skating as for how it’s shot. The first thing I noticed (watching skating broadcasts with fresh eyes, having hardly seen any in 34 years) was that the shooters always keep the skates in the shot, but they never show just the skates. They switch cameras both to change angles and to avoid dramatic or rapid zooms. For the most part, they start with a wide establishing shot and zoom smoothly to the faces at the beginning and end of a program (with shallower depth of field than at any other time in a given segment), but they generally stick to medium shots that keep the skaters’ entire bodies in the frame while they perform.

This is standard live sports-coverage stuff that doesn’t draw attention to itself; you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t studying it. I doubt I gave it a second thought in 1980. What I do remember adapting to all applicable playground activity, though, was the way Olympic judges scored the skating and ski jumping events, assigning one score for technical merit and another for artistic impression.

Reviewing the skating footage I shot pre-Sochi, I find several instances of sacrificing technical merit for artistic impression. I see too many art-house-tight, skates-only shots that fail to cover the action. And even though coverage isn’t paramount in promo video as it is in a sportscast, artistic impression means little without technical merit (unless you’re trying to impress folks who disdain it).

In 2012 I wrote an article (bit.ly/1czRAmC) about three Richmond, Va., filmmakers who had created a short online documentary on a century- old intercollegiate football rivalry to promote the athletic program at one of the schools; this film had subsequently made them the go-to guys for universities in their region undertaking similar projects. Two of them had been watching college football all their lives and had probably even run cameras for a few live game broadcasts. But these DSLR-shot productions drew more on their backgrounds in documentary filmmaking and high-end, short-form wedding work than on any experience in broadcast sports.

As one of the filmmakers, Scott Strimple, described the approach, “We shoot the game, but we use it as b-roll for the underlying story. But people who watch it still get a sense that they’re watching a game.” Ironically, it was the too-muchstory, not-enough-sports nature of Olympics TV coverage that drove me to boycott for 34 years (the ever-present click-away option makes the online experience that much more appealing).

But the likelihood of two different camera crews working the same sideline, one covering the game and the other building a story, underscores the rich variety of online video production, as well as the varied perspectives of those behind the lens. And while the eternal internal struggle between technical merit and artistic impression might seem like #SomebodyElse’sProblem to those who don’t watch the world through an eyepiece or field monitor, Streaming Media is excited to highlight the producer’s perspective on online video—an angle we track regularly on streamingmedia.com/producer—in this issue.

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