19 Jan 2019

Are stylistic decisions making television hard to watch?

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Are stylistic decisions making television hard to watch? BBC

BBC television dramas have recently come under criticism for dark cinematography and unintelligable dialogue.

On Friday 4th January 2019, BBC News published a story essentially criticising another organ of the BBC. It's a strange sort of institutional self-flagellation that the BBC likes to indulge in from time to time, perhaps motivated by a degree of paranoia that it will seem too smugly secure in its isolation from commercial pressure. Being funded by a sort of proto-taxation, Auntie Beeb (which is what we call it, apparently) has occasionally been cited as an anticompetitive force the market for things like broadcast news.

It's hard to argue against that idea – the BBC is not subject to commercial pressure, at least not in the same way Sky News is. Still, most people seem content to put up with this minor kink in capitalist principle in return for better journalism.

Camerawork criticisms

So the BBC has occasionally seemed happy to dive willingly under the bus in order to shine up its reputation as a bastion of fairness, but it seems a bit much to base a front-page news story on two comments from uninvolved people about the camerawork in a drama series. Friday's piece included quotes suggesting that recent episodes of Luther have hovered dangerously on the boundary between low-key (or perhaps better, low-fill) moodiness and sheer darkness. These comments come from the social media presence of journalist Kate Bevan and from Neil Yelland, who is apparently a cricketer (your correspondent is uninterested in sports, and had to Google this.) Neither of them are camera specialists, though both are of course entitled to an opinion; television is not only made for the people who make it.

To be scrupulously fair, it isn't the first time that an issue of sheer understandability has arisen in popular media. Even Christopher Nolan has been criticised – by our esteemed editor-in-chief, no less – for the way Matthew Mcconaughey mumbled his way through Interstellar. The BBC itself has suffered similar criticism for several series, particularly including Jamaica Inn and Happy Valley. Both of those productions involved dialogue delivered using regional accents, although SS-GB, which imagined an alternate 1940s in which the UK had been taken over by Nazis, was set in London and attracted similar complaints.

The problem is perhaps a (slightly desperate) reaching for realism. In reality, people don't speak like characters in a stage play. Mid-twentieth-century filmmaking is often derided for its use of warped, mid-atlantic accents and the sort of enunciation typical of a post-Edwardian radio broadcast. Nobody wants modern drama to sound like that, least of all the actors. Likewise, while some absolutely stellar work was done by cinematographers of the 40s and 50s, using staggeringly insensitive technologies such as three-strip Technicolor, nobody wants to have to put a large and obvious spotlight on someone to suggest that they're carrying a light through the medieval castle at night. No candle should ever cast its own shadow on the back wall.

Differences in approach

If there's a difference between the approaches to sound and picture, it's that people involved in sound will almost invariably understand that a clear voice recording is an essential starting point, whether or not that's actually achievable on any given production. A cinematographer, on the other hand, is much more likely to reach for – let's be polite – mood, chiaroscuro and shadow, compromising sheer visibility for style.

Nobody operating a microphone or a mixer on a film or TV show has ever deliberately recorded unclear dialogue that was intended to be heard. People are shot in silhouette all the time, though, and that could reasonably be described as an “unclear image” of a person. Nobody's claiming that directors of photography are deliberately hiding things that need to be seen, which would be asinine, but there is a legitimate concern over the competing needs of attractive, appropriate photography and a clear depiction of events.

Without wanting to make this into a competition between the desires and requirements of camera and sound, we could reasonably conclude that there's a disparity between the way the two departments are treated. Good sound, after all, is ideally invisible in a way that really good camerawork isn't, and particularly inexperienced directors might easily be led into concerning themselves excessively with the image, allowing a cinematographer latitude (ha!) that might easily be misused, while overlooking the concerns of the people with the microphones.

It's a tough balance, and one that the BBC, in particular, seems interested in maintaining. Still, it might be as well not to take the front-page news coverage too seriously: the sixth item down on today's list of healines is “dangerous driving caught on dashcam.” Is that news?


Phil Rhodes

Phil Rhodes is a Cinematographer, Technologist, Writer and above all Communicator. Never afraid to speak his mind, and always worth listening to, he's a frequent contributor to RedShark.

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