The Power of Tone and Story

Here at RAM we think and talk a lot about how to make our pieces more compelling and engaging.  We cover both technical and artistic aspects of the films we see and films we are making.  It is not often that we get a chance to isolate one or more aspects for direct comparison.  However, last week a short video came across my virtual desk that was epic, cinematic, and stunning technically and one that I found quite engaging from an artistic perspective as well.  Sponsored by the Greenland Tourism department of all places, the cinematography was glossy but substantive.  I see a lot of glossy stuff where the grips and gaffers have made the images flawless but these were different because it was obvious that they were created without the lights, bounces, and silks available to most commercial productions.  

I forwarded the video around and then dug a little deeper to find that it was the “parent” video of a series of smaller videos.  It seems that the team collected a bunch of great footage and then used that footage to create a campaign of short pieces on various activities and topics.  There is a lot of footage that gets reused in these which is fine.  The footage is all wonderful.  What I found interesting though was that while the footage was all comparable, the tone of each piece varied across a scale from what I would call sincere or authentic to one that I would call contrived or commercial.  This provided an opportunity to isolate the tone, the writing, the “story” side of things from the visual language of the pieces because that was comparable across each.  (see the progression below)

What struck me most was the difference between the kayaking piece and the fly fishing piece.  “Kayaking” came across as honest and sincere, like the filmmakers were trying to say something worth hearing rather than another shiny piece of brain candy: momentarily stimulating but transitory and meaningless.  Perhaps it is the use of native language with subtitles, perhaps it’s the music, perhaps it’s the tone of the speaker, or perhaps its the first person perspective of the writing.  In any case, I listened (and read subtitles) and felt that the imagery worked with the tone of the rest of the piece to become greater than the sum of the parts. 


In the middle of the scale is “Glacier Biking” which used a tone typical of the ski film, surf film, bike film, fly fishing film genres.  It set off the “I’ve seen this before” alarm but the activity was unusual and the imagery was beautiful so I stayed engaged for the whole piece, though less so than “Kayaking”.  I’ve seen a bunch of films like this before and they are fun to watch but require the exotic activity or location or extreme events to really stick in the mind.  This worked because it was entertaining and had something to say that I hadn’t heard before.

 Glacier Biking: 

Biking on the Greenlandic Ice Cap - Rough.Real.Remote. from on Vimeo.

On the contrary, “Fly Fishing” used a more upbeat soundtrack with a narrator who spoke with an upward positive lilt conveying a barely suppressed bubblieness.  The storyline, for lack of a better word was directly from a marketing campaign handbook and my cynicism immediately turned on and set to 11.  By the end of the short piece it occurred to me that it could have been an ad for Colorado, or REI, or a Mutual Fund, or a new ED medication, but it was definitely an ad.  It was pure candy and my mind shifted it immediately over into the “noise” bin to be discarded.  The writing did not supplement the imagery or even leverage it in ay useful way. The images were still stunning but not enough to carry the piece over the hurdle of ingrained antipathy to the constant onslaught of advertisements we subject ourselves to every day.  It was...typical I guess.

Fly Fishing:

Fly fishing in Greenland - Rough.Real.Remote. from on Vimeo.

What is the moral of all of this?  Story matters.  Sincerity matters.  Content is not just imagery, it’s something greater than the sum of its parts.  If you are going to go out and collect incredible imagery, and you should, then make sure you use it to say something of value, something sincere, something that you believe in and something that we’ll remember.  MMP Films collected and some memorable footage in Greenland and made some compelling short pieces and I commend them for introducing variety in their treatments of that footage but for me, the fly fishing piece was a failed experiment from which we can all learn.

Watch the progression of videos, particularly the kayaking and the fly fishing, and see if you agree.