To Shape and Direct

the Audience's Point of View:

Production Appeals

by Virginia V. Kidd
Dept. of Communication Studies
California State University, Sacramento

Technical Vocabulary

Field of view


Establishing shot
Long shot
Medium shot
Medium close up
Close up
Extreme close up

Camera angle


Eye level angle
Below viewer's eye level
Above viewer's eye level



Sharp focus
Soft focus
Rack focus
Depth of field

Editing techniques for scene change



Special effects


Defocus effect
Freeze frame
Zoom in and out
Speeded up motion
Slow motion
Tilting angle
Hand-held shots (shaky cam)

Metric Montage


One shot
Two shot
Over-the-shoulder shot
Reaction shot


Normal lens
Wide angle lens
Telephoto lens
Long lens


Image size
Asymmetry of the screen

Horizontal direction
Vertical direction

Directional forces


Focul point
Eye gaze
Gaze movement




General lighting
Lighting from above
Lighting from below
Pointed lighting
Back lighting
Chirusco lighting




by Virginia V. Kidd

"The instruments of discourse are increasingly being replaced by the instruments of show business." ---Neil Postman


In 1979 the Journal of Communication published a study entitled "Subtle Sex-Role Cues in Children's Commercials." The authors had taped sixty television commercials. Twenty of them showed little girls playing with toys, twenty showed little boys, and twenty, labeled neutral, showed both. They examined these commercials not for message claims but for "the level of action or movement, pacing, camera techniques such as cuts, zooms, and animation, and auditory features such as music, sound effects, and narration" (Welch et al. 203).

The study's findings illustrate that a critical thinker in today's environment needs to know about more than words. The study found that production techniques ". . . convey messages about masculine and feminine stereotypes at a level that is not easily recognized and therefore may be more influential than the more obvious content messages" (Welch et al. 203):

Male and neutral commercials had higher rates of cuts than did female commercials (205). . . . Female commercials contained more fades and dissolves than did male commercials. Male commercials were characterized by more abrupt, instantaneous shifts in view, whereas female commercials contained more slow, smooth transitions or terminations (206). . . . Male commercials had more noise than the other types. Background music, however, occurred more often in female commercials, which were characterized by soft music forming a background to dialog or narration. Male commercials contained more loud music and sound effects that were highly salient (207). . . . The formal features that were unique to female commercials--fades and background music--convey images of softness, gentleness, predictability, and slow gradual change. At the very subtle level of visual and auditory images, then, the stereotypes of females as quiet, soft, gentle, and inactive are supported (207). . . . Messages about what is distinctively "masculine" are conveyed through a high rate of action, aggression, quick shifts from one scene to another, and a jazzed-up sound track. (208)

Clearly, if you want to think critically in this media age, you need to know about more than direct arguments and straightforward claims. You need to understand messages conveyed in a new form of language. Almost without exception, messages that reach the largest audiences and thus have the most potential impact are communicated via some mediated channel such as television, print, radio, music or film. Such media do not merely transmit messages in an impartial fashion. Even a situation as basic as one person seated at a desk and speaking directly to a television audience is influenced by camera angles, sound equipment, lighting, editing techniques, and stage setting, elements Rod Whitaker labels film language:

At the risk of offending literary people, it must be recognized that the language of film is vastly more complicated than the verbal language. After all, words are only one component of the total film message, and not the most important one at that. . . . In the film, which operates in time and space simultaneously, spoken words, written words, compositions, angles, lighting, histrionics, music, background sounds, montages--many content elements wash over the viewer, and the message flows on steadily, out of the control of the receiver. (6-7)

Such techniques operate in a variety of media. The most obvious are television and film, but many of the same principles apply to advertising layouts, record album covers, billboards, magazine covers, and so on.

That these techniques operate outside most viewer's awareness makes them particularly powerful. Production techniques influence us whether we know it or not. Bernard Timberg describes how he came to realize this power of production elements to escape "our conscious notice while shaping our unconscious response" (135):

Seeing General Hospital fresh after eighteen months, I realized I had developed a strong point of view about the characters, and I began to wonder how I had come to see them as I did. . . . I found my point of view shaped most powerfully not by words but by visual images and sound. I suspect that these nonverbal, nonliterary forms of communication have kept many critics from understanding the rhetoric of soap opera--a rhetoric based on specific camera and sound conventions that structure the viewer's experience of the soap opera world. (133)

He cautions of the danger of not thinking critically about these conventions:

Like the visibility of the purloined letter in Poe's short story, the very obviousness of the cinematic codes of soap opera keeps people from thinking about them and thus makes them more effective in doing their job: to shape and direct the audience's point of view. (134)

Timberg's warning is echoed by Ronald Primeau in his book The Rhetoric of Television::

Ordinarily the special visual and audio effects of a TV program are not noticeable unless viewers are looking for them. A long series of close-ups will create emotional intensity without calling attention to themselves. Loud noises may make audiences irritable before they are aware of what is causing the irritation. Feelings of urgency or chaos accompany montage segments, even though audiences may feel little sense of how carefully those segments are selected and manipulated to achieve those effects. (73)

Because the power of production techniques lies to a large extent in the fact that they work outside the realm of consciousness, the best way to begin thinking critically about them is to be able to recognize and identify them. In use, of course, production techniques work in conjunction with one another, each enhancing the other; however, for the sake of clarity here, each technique will be individually described.

The Camera's Viewpoint

"The camera has a point of view; it becomes a viewer" (46), report Kathleen Jamieson and Karlyn Campbell in The Interplay of Influence. The viewer "very readily assumes the camera's viewpoint" (Zettl 227). What that viewpoint is, therefore, is highly significant.

Five dimensions of camera technique generate this influential power: the field of view, the angle at which the camera is aimed, the type of lens on the camera, the focus used, and camera movement.

Field of View

A limited number of basic camera shots form the framework from which visual media tell their story:

Typically a scene moves through these shots like sentences in a paragraph, beginning with the establishing shot or thesis, moving to the medium shot, the medium close-up, then the close-up, in a systematic way reminiscent of grammar. Such a pattern can of course be varied for effect, and often is.

Several other shots are also standard patterns:

Each of these different shots has its own rhetorical impact. To an extent, field of view matches interpersonal distances. When we are far from people, we are less involved with them; when we are intimate, we are generally very close physically as well as emotionally. The way a camera presents a person creates the same effect. Typically, a long shot creates a sense that the subject viewed is distant, merely one small part of the world we are examining; a medium shot is more interactional, conversational; a close-up generates intimacy or, in negative situations, intrusion or threat.

Jamieson and Campbell describe how these principles affect not only drama but news shows as well:

Reporters and anchors are shown in the medium close-up and medium shot as are nearly all individuals in hard news stories. These distances are considered impartial and detached, the visual counterpart of journalistic objectivity. . . . Similarly, news programs rarely show individuals full length in longer shots at what is public distance. Such distances depersonalize and decrease the emotional involvement of the viewer. They destroy the personal and social contact that is the hallmark of television news. (46

Camera Angle

Camera angles are traditionally discussed in terms of three basic angles--eye level, below eye level and above eye level. Obviously wide variations exist within these three categories; even so, they serve as basic descriptors.

Herbert Zettl in his book Sight, Sound, and Motion explained why camera angles may influence:

For some time, kings, school teachers, preachers, judges, and gods knew that sitting up high had very important effects. Not only could they see better and be seen more easily, but also they could look down on people, and the people had to look up to them.

This physical elevation has strong psychological implications. It immediately distinguishes between inferior and superior, between leader and follower, between those who have power and authority and those who have not.

The camera can do the same thing. When we look up with the camera, the object or event seems more important, more powerful, more authoritative than when we look at it straight on or even look down on it.

When we look down with the camera, the object usually loses somewhat in significance; it becomes less powerful, less important than we we look at it straight on or from below. (227)

To illustrate how camera angle generates emotional response, Haig Manoogian provides an example:

A striking example of the use of such an angle is to be found in Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952), in which the sheriff is alone on a street, abandoned by the people of the town, who know full well that he is to be killed by the returning gunmen. The camera pulls back to a full long shot, catching the weakness of the man's position by reducing him in size in relation to the fairly large town, now underscored in its emptiness. If you imagine the same subject, still in a lost situation but seen from a low angle, with the camera looking up, his plight loses its edge. (115)

As well, the camera's angle often determines the picture's background. Upward angles tend to be shot against the sky, cloud banks, walls, windows, all of which are positive; downward angles, on the other hand, show the subject against floors, dirt, litter, feet, and such non-inspiring subjects.

Even inanimate objects are subject to camera angle manipulation. A towering U.S. army tank looks menacing and fearful when shot from below. A harvester in a field of wheat looks powerful and efficient framed against the sky. Even an automobile "seems to be able to go faster when we look up at it" (Zettl 229).

The same camera angle that creates an image of strength can create quite an alternate effect. The camera with a low angle, looking up, can introduce strength, security, and stature. Yet, depending on the emotional qualities of the subject, the same angle can serve to intensify horror, fear, or the feeling of being overpowered. A standard procedure for monster films is the the use of this angle. Nothing can be so frightening and bloodcurdling as a horned, smoke-bellowing, scaly creature, towering above on the screen at an extremely close perspective. (Manoogian 116)

What this demonstrates, in essence, is that both Superman and Godzilla can be shot effectively from much the same angle. This is not as inconsistent as it might initially seem. As a child, you craned your neck upward at all adults. A loving grandparent, taking your hand to lead you to the circus, was tall and wonderful, magnified by love and the angle at which you gazed. However, an angry neighbor, standing above you, breathing heavily while veins pulsed on his forehead as he demanded to know why you threw the rock at the window, was the same tall, magnified height seen from the same angle.

Nowhere is the question of camera impact more closely scrutinized than in presidential debates. Leslie K. Davis examined "eye-contact behavior with the camera lens" (432) in the 1976 debates. A straight angle creates the effect of looking the audience in the eye. This effect is enhanced by a medium close-up or close-up shot. Asking what kind of relationship existed between "eye-contact behavior" and the results of the debates as defined by polling measures and/or political analysts, Davis concludes that

. . . eye-contact behavior is a key ingredient to an evaluation of the televised Presidential Debates of 1976. . . . The ability to carry out a performance strategy which includes eye-contact technique may have great influence on the effect of a debate series on television. (455)

A final camera angle worthy of discussion here is the tilted angle. The familiar horizontal plane "gives us a feeling of stability" (Zettl 117). By tilting the horizontal plane, however, "We can create an intense feeling of dis-orientation." This can be used to signify "extreme physical or mental stress or simply to make a scene appear more dynamic, more energetic" (Zettl 120). As Alan Armer explains in Directing Television and Film, "The tilted shot . . . suggests a world that has gone awry, in which normal standards of security have disappeared" (186).

Camera Lens

Camera lenses can be divided into three categories: normal, wide angle, and long. A normal lens corresponds to the perception of the human eye and presents images with a minimum of distortion, creating the impression that the camera perceives what the eye perceives. This, coupled with the notion that seeing is believing, can lead viewers to believe they are observing reality even when they are viewing distorted images. Distortion typically occurs when images are shot through special lenses. Wide angle and long lenses can affect perception of depth. Armer notes:

One property of the wide angle lens is that it enlarges objects in the immediate foreground and reduces background objects, distorting space, creating the illusion of greater distance than actually exists. Thus, a corridor actually twenty feet long might appear double or triple that length when photographed with a wide angle lens. (190)

Zettl points out that "relative size is greatly exaggerated by the wide angle lens. Objects close to the camera are reduced in image size quite drastically" (189). He demonstrates this in Sight, Sound, Motion with a photo of two men, one behind the other, photographed using a wide angle lens. He notes: "We perceive one man to be farther away from the other than he really is" (189). He then shows the same scene shot with an alternate lens: "When shot with a narrow-angle lens, the image size of the two men becomes more similar. They seem, therefore, to be standing much closer together than they really are" (189). The long telephoto likewise distorts perception as Clark Agnew and Neil O'Brien demonstrate with a familiar example of a horse race:

When a telephoto lens is used, the foreground, middle ground, and background all seem to be on one flat plane. When the horses turn in the backstretch and head toward the camera, they usually appear to be running furiously in the same spot for an interminable length of time. (189)

On occasion special lenses are used to distort images overtly. An Alka Seltzer commercial showed close ups photographed with a wide angle lens of characters with distorted faces, symbolic of the inside of the head in pain. In these cases the distortion is obvious.

Camera Focus

Camera focus sets mood and directs attention. Two common focus styles are the sharp focus, in which every item is clearly visible, and the soft focus, which puts a hazy touch over the picture. Typically the soft focus is used for "tender" cinematic moments, is a cue for memory (flashbacks) or imagination, and sometimes indicates the passage of time. "Reality" is more likely to be sharp and clear.

Shots also vary in terms of how much of the scene is in focus. With a long depth of field, an entire scene may be in focus. With a shallow one, only a segment of the scene is in focus and the rest is hazy. In such cases, as Armer remarks, "Camera focus tends to be needle sharp on some characters and fuzzy on others. This selective focus remains a time-honored device for directing and controlling emphasis" (179).

This can be heightened by using a technique called rack focus, changing the focal point of an image, typically from the foreground to the background or vice versa. Very quickly, certain elements in a picture cease to be in focus and certain others come into focus, forcing viewers' attention where the director wants it. So common is this technique that a spoof of soap operas, Fresno, also spoofed the technique, zooming quickly from Carol Burnett in the back of the car to her chauffeur in the front, then back again repeatedly whenever either would speak.

Frequently camera focus is used in conjunction with editing techniques. A common procedure for ending a scene, for example, is to fade out of focus to black.

Camera Movement

On the screen you see a jet black cat, observing the scene around him. He is the only witness to the family's strange disappearance. Carefully he licks his paws, never taking his eyes away from your face. Suddenly he sits up, leaps from the table and stalks silently down the hall, closer and closer to the bedroom where the furniture has been ravaged, the drawers dumped out, the clothes carefully searched and thrown in ragged heaps onto the floor. You follow him down the long hall, longing to see what he sees, what he has seen. He turns; his ears flatten and he looks directly into the camera lens, directly into your eyes, seems to stalk closer, closer, until his face fills the frame. He hisses and bares his teeth, poised ready to spring into your face, protecting the dark house with its silent secrets. You pull back, leaning away from the video cat.

We can be pulled into a story and emotionally involved by camera movement. Stephen Baker describes how pictures which move away have a "beckoning quality; moving toward the viewer, they make him instinctively draw back" (174). Manoogian elaborated on this in The Film-Maker's Art:

Should the camera move forward, the viewer begins to anticipate, seek, hunt, and expect. . . .Having the camera retreat de-emphasizes the subject matter and induces isolation, loneliness, and abandonment. Depending on the content, such use of the camera can help to create a shrinking revulsion, a feeling of disgust. (118)


Lighting creates mood, directs attention, and, in the way it is angled, changes the picture. It conveys time and place and sets mood:

Soft, indefinite lighting may suggest romance or peace; strong lighting often is used to convey a feeling of realism; abrupt changes in lighting may be effective in portraying a startling development of any kind, perhaps in emphasizing a product improvement. (Agnew and O'Brien 179)

The film Lenny demonstrated the mood-setting power of lighting, as Peter Klinge and Lee McConkey describe:

An accident sequence was appropriately dark and wet; a flaky sex scene. . . couldn't have been darker and still be recorded on film. . . . The ultimate degradation, Lenny Bruce lying dead and naked on a bathroom floor, was appropriately rendered by a grainy, harshly lighted still picture.

The film's few happy moments were properly bright: Honey being released from the hospital; Honey and Lenny making love shortly after they met. The most memorable was a nude Honey, posing like an Esquire calendar girl, surrounded by Lenny's gift of a thousand flowers. That was their happiest moment; it was also the brightest scene of the film. (137)

Lighting is also used to direct attention, often by lighting a subject so that "while it appears completely natural, the product is treated in a way that attracts the eye" (Agnew and O'Brien 180). This is true whether the product is Tide or a politician. Howell Raines reported in the New York Times on Ronald Reagan's use of these tactics during the 1984 presidential campaign:

Before the president's two-hour, 20-minute visit to Grand Rapids, the advance team hired a lighting contractor to make sure the president would be bathed in glowing, shadowless light suitable for a stage play, even when speaking in the dim, cavernous Westinghouse plant (qtd in Sacramento Bee A19).

Like cameras, lights can be angled onto subjects to create certain effects. The killer who leans toward his sleeping victim and pauses with his face above the bedside lamp, shadows jutting upward, has his evil intent conveyed by his lighting. When lighting is angled from below the face, "normally shadowed areas under brows, nose and chin are now fully lit. Strange shadows are seen. . . . The eyes become strongly lit, the overall effect being bizarre, uncanny, horrific" (Millerson 126). Lighting from above, on the other hand, makes a subject seem gaunt: "Downward shadows grow, progressively 'aging' the subject. . . . Nose and chin shadows lengthen, as do eyebrow, cheek and lip shadows" (Millerson 119). Front lighting creates a flat effect which "may help where it is diplomatic to make the subject look younger, or where a face is very strongly wrinkled" (Millerson 127). Back lighting softens, may even create a halo effect. This lighting is often seen in shampoo commercials, demonstrating highlights and glows in hair that yours never seems to have no matter how many times you wash with Jhirmack. (Perhaps you should try standing in front of a spotlight.)


Editing is the process of putting individual shots together to create a whole product. The dramatic editor as well as the news editor have great power here in terms of what standard editing devices are used, what information is omitted or included, and how the information is sequenced.

One of the most famous experiments on the impact of editing was conducted during the Twenties by Russian director Lev Kuleshov. A neutral image of actor Ivan Mozhukin was alternated with shots of a bowl of soup, an elderly woman lying in a coffin, and a little girl playing with a teddy bear. The audience was moved by the actor's hunger when looking at the bowl of soup, his sorrow at the death of his mother, his pleasure watching his daughter play. V.I. Pudovkin described the reaction: "The public raved about the acting of the artist, . . . the heavy pensiveness of his mood, . . . the deep sorrow, . . . the light happy smile. . . . But in all three cases the face was exactly the same" (Pryluch, Teddlie & Sands 685). This illustrates, asserts Armer, "an audience's ability to project their own thoughts or emotions into what they watch" (173).

Jamieson and Campbell believe audiences are aware that manipulation is possible through editing, but that awareness is rarely conscious. This is because many editing techniques have assumed certain standard meanings: "Slow motion footage is considered tender, even romantic; jumpy images are considered dramatic; extreme close-ups are considered intense and dramatic" (46). Audiences respond to these meanings without really thinking about them. Agnew and O'Brien offer other examples: "When many fairly brief shots are used, a feeling of excitement and tension tends to be created, and, at the other extreme, a long, unbroken shot may be helpful if a leisurely and restful atmosphere is wanted" (202).

Standard editing devices allow directors to create particular effects:

The director also determines, as part of the editing process, which shots will be used and which will be left on the cutting room floor (or on the unedited tape) and how long the viewer will focus on one scene rather than another. A scene may be prolonged, for instance, by adding reaction cuts, the response of one character to another.

Selectivity is, of course, particularly relevant in news reports. C. Richard Hofstetter and Terry F. Buss examined this problem at some length. What will be included in a news show is based, they assess, on "judgments of relevance" which depends on "the journalists' view of the world" (518):

A story may describe all policy alternatives and those selected by politicians, or a story may report only the "chosen" alternative while omitting others. Reporting may "legitimize" a policy; failing to report a policy might make it suspect. Thus some policies may become "legitimized" not because of intrinsic merit, but because of coverage received." (526-27)

Newsweek offered a clear example of how television coverage of news can vary when they discussed the impact of how news reporters covered the 1982 mideastern crises:

By training their cameras on the stark rubble and bloody civilian casualties produced by the Israeli assault on Beirut, television reporters did more than anyone else in the media to transmit Israel's international image, once that of an embattled underdog, as something much closer to a brutal aggressor. Practically overnight, the familiar television picture of unarmed Israeli citizens bleeding and screaming after PLO terrorist attacks had been replaced by nearly nightly shots of a smiling Yasir Arafat cradling Palestinian babies in his arms. (Kaiser 58)

Newsweek quoted Zev Chafets of Israel's government press office: "Television greatly exaggerated the amount of destruction and failed to underline the underlying causes of the war" (59).

Television is not alone in its selectivity. The role of minorities in media is one scholars intermittently examine. Susan Miller systematically analyzed the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post for a six month period. Her results: "In the 46 issues sampled . . . photos of men outnumbered photos of women by 3 to 1 in the Post and 2 to 1 in the Times" (72). Such results no longer even surprise. But they do illustrate the power of media to create a sense of reality by selective editing.

The editor also decides how information will be sequenced. The Kuleshov experiment demonstrated the power of sequencing, but we do not have to turn to drama alone to see sequencing in action:

A political commercial for presidential contender Howard Baker, aired during the 1980 primaries, used actual news footage showing Senator Baker responding to a question from an Iranian student. In the commercial the audience then rose to its feet in thunderous applause. But people who were in the audience reported that that was not the crowd's reaction. The commercial, through editing, reordered the event to create the illusion that the audience responded eagerly and positively to Baker's answer. (Jamieson and Campbell 49)

Another example of the power of sequencing occurred in the 1976 Presidential debates:

. . . the manner in which the debates were televised altered the appearance of the "live" events by exaggerating their confrontational, or "gladiatorial," component. This was done in two ways: (a) by an overemphasis of the extent to which the candidates were interacting with each other; (b) by a corresponding underemphasis of the extent to which each candidate was interacting with members of the panel. (Messaris, Eckman and Gumpert 361)

This emphasis was accomplished by the type of television shots used and frequent cutting from one candidate to another:

The panelists appear in a mere 11 shots in those portions of the debates in which the candidates are speaking. Since these portions of the debates contained a grand total of 313 shots . . . , the magnitude of the difference is quite apparent. (Messaris, Eckman and Gumpert 361)

Yet when the candidates' actual nonverbal behavior was coded from 212 shots, researchers found the candidates looking at the panel in 129 of them, at the camera in 87 shots, and in only two cases were the candidates looking at each other (Messaris, Eckman and Gumpert 362).

Visual Composition

How a magazine advertisement is laid out on a page very obviously influences what a viewer sees. What may be less obvious is that images are laid out on television and film screens as well. Harry Hepner describes the power of print layouts in Advertising--Creative Communication with Consumers:

Eye movements over an advertisement may be directed almost as definitely as an automobile through a city. . . . The reader's eye must have a starting point.

. . . This is called the "focus" or "focal point," and should, if possible, fall in or near the optical center, that is, slightly above and to the left of the exact center. This is usually a spot that is given considerable emphasis by the eyes. (444-45)

Laboratory studies of eye movements show that successive movement of the eyes following the initial fixation is toward the left and upward. (446)

But these natural eye directions can be diverted. Hepner describes two techniques that help manipulate eye directions. One he calls structural motion:

Structural motion means that bodies of people, packages, areas, colors, or other elements are arranged to direct the reader's eye to some desired spot, such as the trademark name of the product or the first line of the copy. (446)

Zettl calls these forces vectors, arguing that "probably the strongest forces operating within the screen are directional forces, which lead our eyes from one point to another within, or even outside of, the picture field" (140):

A vector on the screen indicates a main direction that has been established either by implication, such as arrows, things arranged in a particular line, people looking in a specific direction, or by actual screen motion, such as a man running from screen-left to screen-right or a car traveling from right to left or toward or away from the camera. (140)

The second technique Hepner identifies is called gaze motion: "Gaze motion refers to the tendency of the reader to follow the direction of the gaze of persons or animals pictured in an advertisement" (446). Thus when you see the handsome sailor looking off at the camera with a wistful look in his eye and a cigarette in his mouth, you follow his gaze toward the brand name in his sight and away from the Surgeon General's warning in the bottom corner of the page.

In his classic work Visual Persuasion, Baker presents numerous illustrations of the impact of subtle visual changes on a message's impact. One shows two versions of the same photograph of a car. One photo is cropped to leave a large segment of sky above the auto and little road before or behind it. The impression created is of a car standing still. The second photograph shows the same scene but cropped with little sky and much road stretching before and behind the car. What Baker calls the "horizontal" photograph helps to "create an illusion of the automobile's moving along the road" (83).

The layout of the TV screen is termed framing:

When the television camera frames an image or scene it creates a limited two-dimensional visual field. The arrangement of elements within this defined space, the sequencing or context of the visual images, the dynamics of movement within the frame, and the images themselves all interact to create a visual message which has meaning for the viewer. (Tiemens, "1976 Debates" 363)

If an individual's head is near the top of the screen, he will fill the screen, appearing to the quite large. On the other hand, if his head is near the center of the screen, with his shoulders at the bottom of the screen, he will seem smaller. Thus framing affects image size. Similarly, how two individuals are framed in the same shot can affect how large or small they appear to be in contrast to one another.

Robert Tiemens examined how such framing created a particular effect in the 1976 televised debates between Carter and Ford:

Those shots in which both candidates appeared reveal one of the most marked discrepancies in the visual portrayal of Ford and Carter. Two-shots used in the first and third debates showed a difference in screen height which favored Ford. This is not surprising in light of the fact that Mr. Ford is three to four inches taller than Mr. Carter. . . . In the second debate, however, analyses of the two-shots show a marked difference which favored Carter. (368)

After conducting his analysis, Tiemens concluded, "Differences in camera framing and composition, camera angle, screen placement, and reaction shots seemingly favored Mr. Carter" (370). That such production techniques could have an impact on the telecast of Presidential debates indicates clearly that individuals should be able to think critically about visual media.


Four Tonka trucks sit on the toy store shelf--one red, one brown, one blue, and one gold. Tommy, age four, sees only one--it is red, it is shiny, it is surely the most beautiful Tonka truck ever made and, if he is very lucky, it will be his. Asked about the other choices, he voices surprise. Were there other trucks there?

Individuals are drawn to certain colors over and over. Almost everyone can list his or her favorite color without hesitation. You probably also can name certain colors you never wear, shades you prefer for furniture, for automobiles, for baby boys' clothes. If you are served blue mashed potatoes, despite the fact that your hostess assures you they are made from the finest potatoes and and simply have food coloring in them as an experiment, you may have trouble eating them. You may have experienced the feeling of being very uncomfortable in a room and realized after a while you were being influenced by the wall tones or furnishings.

At my own University, I often teach in a classroom that still astounds me. I have a theory that the University obtained paint for this room at an enormous discount because nobody with any choice in the matter would have purchased it. Three walls are battleship gray. The impact is dismal. I am reminded of battered aluminum cooking pots and galvanized garbage cans. Apparently in an effort to counter this, the fourth wall was painted yellow; not, however, a soft banana yellow, which happens to be my favorite color, but a glaring mustard yellow that could have come straight from a French's jar; this covers an entire classroom wall and oppressively dominates whatever is happening. If nothing else, the choice of paint for room 317 at least graphically demonstrates the power of color.

Colors operate somewhat like words: they have the power to influence but at times their meanings can be ambiguous. When you attempt to discern how colors in a message are influencing you, remember that colors both affect perceptions and carry symbolic meanings. The symbolic meanings may vary from culture to culture; the perceptual impacts, however, seem to be properties of the colors, although as Zettl points out, this is an area not as yet fully understood by researchers:

Certain colors, or color groups, seem to influence our perception and emotions in fairly specific ways. Although we still do not know exactly why, some colors seem warmer than others; some seem closer or farther away. A box painted with a certain color may appear heavier than an identical box painted with another color. Some colors seem to excite us, others to calm us down.

Color influences most strikingly our judgment of temperature, space, time, and weight. (68)

He provides some thought-provoking examples:

If two identical boxes are painted, one with a cold, light green and the other with a warm, dark brown, the green one will look slightly smaller than the brown one. Under warm light, we tend to overestimate time; under cold light we underestimate time. Red and highly saturated warm colors look closer than cold colors with similar saturation. A baby tends to overreach a blue ball, but underreach a red one. Light, warm-colored areas seem to expand; dark, cold-colored ones seem to contract" (70). . . .

Some of our perceptions about color are formed by historical links. As Klinge and McConkey put it, "Tradition has associated cliche meaning to the primary colors" (137). They describe red as exciting; green as ambiguously hinting of life, jealousy, immaturity; blue as symbolizing cool, melancholy, calm; and yellow as representing age, disease, cowardice, and joy (137-138). Baker claims, "Gray is noncommital and reduces emotional response" (98).

Sometimes, of course, this faith in the power of colors can be taken to extremes:

Knute Rockne, the football coach at Notre Dame, had his team's dressing room painted red, the visitors' dressing room blue, because he was convinced the red would keep his team fired up. Blue, he thought, would relax the visitors, causing them to let their guard down." (Nelson 224)

Colors are also used symbolically. While this use of color to carry symbolic messages can be widely documented, Zettl reminds us meanings are not universal: "Such symbolic associations are learned. They are, therefore, subject to habits and traditions of people, which can vary considerably from culture to culture, and from period to period" (87)

In Photographic Seeing Andrea Feininger delineated some symbolic uses of color in the American culture:

White and lightness suggest happiness, gaiety, youth, virginity, innocence, and brides. Black and darkness symbolize seriousness, power, misery, despair, and death. . . .Brown symbolizes earthiness and the soil. . . . Red is the warning color par excellence--red traffic stoplights, the red flashers of police cars and ambulances, suggestive of fire, . . . violence and blood. As such, red has become a symbol--the symbol of revolution (the red flag of communism), danger (red warning lights, "red alert"), virility (the "red badge of courage," "red-blooded Americans"), forcefulness, and antagonism (the toreador's red cape, he "saw red," a "red-hot temper"). (106-107)

Such symbolism is used widely by advertisers who have but a moment of your time to get a message to you. Hot days of summer, for instance, are often pictured in heavy yellow-gold tones, with hints of fire colors here and there. One air-conditioning ad shows a family sitting on an orange sofa with a deep yellow-gold carpet and similar window curtains, through which ochre rays stream. The family members are sweating, fanning themselves with cardboard fans. Clearly, this is summer without air-conditioning. If a realist were to point out that it is in summer that we have the greatest profusion of blue skies and green leaves and that those would be better symbols of summer, ad executives would laugh. The "reality" of summer is irrelevant to what is portrayed symbolically.


In some senses visual symbols are the metaphors of video. They are easily recognized. As Whitaker points out, the film maker "can avail himself of both cultural and literary symbols . . . . A shot of the flag, or of the cross, will carry its traditional cultural symbolic value. . ." (133). Armer explains how symbols influence:

Often without realizing it, our minds make associations. When a character in a script is named Ethel, that character takes on resonances of everyone we have ever known, seen, or read about named Ethel. We automatically transfer feelings from those earlier associations. Similarly, when a television or movie program is tinted sepia, we recall yellowing tintypes; the program connotes the nineteenth century, which is exactly what its director anticipated. (187)

Thus a cozy fireplace means home and warmth, even in Miami; friends sitting under palm trees send Christmas greetings bedecked with falling snow.

These traditional indicators are used by news media as well as advertisers:

Ordinary news footage takes advantage of the power of the camera. Correspondents reporting stories are framed against easily recognized locations filled with symbolic significance: the White House, Big Ben, Red Square. A story about New York may be framed against its skyline; a strike is identified by a line of pickets or a silent factory; a murder is indicated by a pool of blood on a sidewalk or a drug bust by a stack of plastic packets. In this way the topics of news stories are instantly identified for the viewer, and the authority of reporters is enhanced; they are there, on the spot. (Jamieson and Campbell 47)

While examining poison control techniques, scientists stumbled across an interesting demonstration of the power of symbols--the fact that children like pirates and are drawn to pictures that represent them. Because of the potential of this discovery, the skull and crossbones is being dropped as a symbol of poison on containers. Replacing it is one of the familiar round faces commonly seen in the form of a happy face; this one has a turned-down mouth and a tongue sticking out, a symbol children readily identify as yukky.


Hobo Willie strolls along the boulevard. He is ragged, dirty, forlorn. Suddenly he slips on a candy wrapper and begins to fall. He throws out his arms to try to balance himself, but merely throws himself into a spin, twirls along the avenue, finally landing with a thud in the gutter. Why don't you feel concerned for him? The rinky-tink music is happy; the pace is fast, the tune upbeat. You have your clues: this is a comedy.

As early as 1951, describing radio sound effects, soundman Robert Turnbull pinpointed the use of sound to generate desired responses when he wrote, "Psychology has its place in the understanding and use of sound effects. As the human mind develops, it forms definite habits of association. These associative patterns can be utilized to arouse emotional reactions. . . " (7). He gave multiple examples of standard sound manipulations to illustrate his point. If you consciously attend to the "background" sounds--especially music--the next time you watch your favorite television show, you may identify these in use.

The most pervasive of mediated sounds is music. Whitaker describes background music as "so idiomatic that the average filmgoer is unconscious of its presence" (105), adding that "it is precisely because background music operates on a level other than the conscious that it can affect the audience member so subtly and strongly" (105). A clear illustration of this was provided by the 1986 Academy Award presentation when a brief film clip of Chariots of Fire without its background music. What had been the key promotional scene from the film became simply a dull clip of men running barefoot on the sand without the musical motif that marked the film. Music's strong impact, according to Patrick Marsh, is emotional: "Since the subject matter of pure music is mood rather than thought, music provides one of the quickest and surest ways of controlling the moods of its listeners" (154).

Music has become so effective and expected a part of dramatic effects that its very absence is now noteworthy. The closing scene from The Caine Mutiny illustrates that:

No music was used during that critical moment when Queeg suffered emotional collapse. Two voices, Ferrer's and Bogart's, were those of characters--assassin and victim. Two sound effects, approximately thirteen seconds of silence (one of the longest, most effective, dramatic pauses ever sustained in a theatrical film), followed by the clicking of steel balls, were profoundly telling in their simplicity: a human being's self control had been irrevocably destroyed. (Klinge and McConkey 155)


Message analysts have begun to blend the study of rhetoric and visual messages. Jane Blankenship, Marlene Fine and Leslie Davis wrote, "Sophisticated television events require that 'text' be understood to require simultaneous apprehension of the discursive (verbal texts) and the presentational (visual texts)" (36). Though this is an injunction with which few would disagree, the methodology for complying with it is less certain.

The bulk of critical studies examining the visual texts of public messages have cataloged the use of production techniques in political rhetoric, particularly presidential debates, and have been conducted not by rhetorical critics but by mass media scholars interested in the impact of media production. Consequently, the studies have focused on elements discussed in this paper, such as camera angles, field of vision (especially close-ups), editing, framing, cut-aways, reaction shots, speaker eye contact with the camera, length of time on camera, and so on. (See, for example, Davis; Hoffstetter and Buss; Messaris, Eckman and Gumpert; Morello; Tiemens, "1976 Presidential Debates," "Visual Context of Argument.") In part these studies are a reaction to a recognition voiced by Bob Tiemens about the work of rhetorical critics. He argues that "a review of the research literature on presidential debates reveals that most analyses focus on the verbal texts of the debates, giving little regard to how the visual images might shape the meaning of those texts" despite the fact that "a comprehensive interpretation of the debate's 'text' makes visual and verbal content inseparable" ("Visual Context" 140).

These studies have provided useful insights into the power of production techniques to change the feel of the event. However, initially such studies paid minimal attention to how the techniques interface with what speakers actually say. Tiemens, Sillars, Alexander, and Werling, for instance, showed how Jesse Jackson's 1984 "Rainbow Coalition" speech varied in its message as it was broadcast by NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, and C-SPAN. They found a great difference in what network cameras showed when directors cut to shots of the audience at the convention; CBS saw a great event for Blacks and televised a strongly disproportionate number of shots of Blacks listening to the speech; ABC saw an emotionally moving speech and cut to shots of people with tears rolling down their cheeks. The study clearly demonstrated the power of editing to create different images. However, at no point did authors correlate the changing shots with the content or emotional development of Jesse Jackson's remarks.

Some recent efforts have been made to consider the two texts together. Tiemens, Hellweg, Kipper and Phillips integratee verbal and visual analyses in their assessment of the 1980 Carter-Reagan debate. Tiemens continued this approach when he examined the September 25, 1988 debate between Bush and Dukakis ("Visual Context").

Hart, Jerome and McComb reported an extensive content analysis of newscasts about the President, identifying formulas through which the news media reported both visually and verbally about presidents in action. This report is illuminating in its discussion of techniques, and does consider content to some degree, though the paper is essentially description of a genre, rather than analytical reasoning about a single message. Barker examined "the relationship between narrative structure and production techniques, as it is manifested in entertainment television" (234). Although the particulars of a given script were irrelevant to his analysis, his findings provided insight into how camera work contributed to the difference between the type of verbal text conveyed by All in the Family as contrasted with M*A*S*H.

Rhetorical critics have certainly not neglected the visual media, especially television and film; however, in most cases their efforts have focused on implications of the values suggested by the subject matter rather than its visual presentation. Rhetorical critical methods are seldom applied to visual texts. The meticulous cataloging generated by scholars of mass media is missing from most rhetorical analyses, and a systematic attempt to apply rhetorical-critical methodologies to the visual text separate from the verbal is rarely attempted.

A notable effort to blend the two is the study of the 1980 Republican Primary Debates conducted by Blankenship, Fine and Davis. Using the Burkean concept of Scene, they detailed both "verbal and visual frames" as they examined how Reagan, especially, was presented on television and what themes his rhetoric developed as he "emerged finally as scenic presence" (35).

A more recent study that examined both visual and verbal texts from a rhetorical-critical perspective is Bormann's analysis of television coverage of the 1981 hostage release as it intertwined with the Reagan Inaugural. Even Bormann's earlier work on "the Eagleton Affair" acknowledged the power of presentational media to impact rhetorical statements, though it does not develop this notion to the extent that his later piece does.


All of these production elements coordinate much as words and nonverbal expressions do to carry messages to you. They serve to arouse or to minimize your emotions, to generate reactions, to transmit information and to conceal information. Critical thinking in a mediated society demands knowing the hidden influences in information conveyed to you by media.

As you watch your favorite TV show or drool over the new red convertible advertised in People, remember to look carefully for the power of production.

1. Look to see how camera techniques change the message and your response.

a. Field of view--how close the camera seems to be to the subject shown; which part of the image is in focus. The closer a character's face seems to be, the more intimate the feeling generated. A long shot creates distance between you and the subject.

b. Camera angle--you assume the camera's view. Looking up at a subject makes it seem more powerful, sometimes even threatening. Looking down makes you feel superior, perhaps even sympathetic. Looking someone "straight in the eye" generates a feeling of trust.

c. Camera lens--the eye can be deceived by the camera lens. Because we tend to believe that the camera sees what we see, we can be mislead into believing the view through a wide angle lens or a telephoto is simply a normal view.

d. Camera focus--focus helps direct attention and control mood. A sharp focus approximates reality. A soft focus signals softness, memory, hazy thought.

e. Camera movement--we tend to follow the camera's movement. As it moves forward, we emotionally follow it. However, if the image seems to be coming at us, closer and closer, we tend to draw back. If the camera pulls away from a subject, we become less involved with it.

2. Watch to see how lighting affects the message and your reaction.

a. Mood lighting--lighting underscores the tone of a scene, emphasizing happiness or depression, excitement or suspense.

b. Directive lighting--by lighting only part of a scene, a lighting director can force your attention to the product or character the script calls for you to notice. A favorite trick of mystery directors, this technique is also used heavily by advertisers.

c. Lighting angle--strong upward lighting creates a strange, sometimes horrific impact. Downward lighting ages. Straight lighting flattens details. Typically, people are lighted with multiple fill lights in order to make them look attractive. The impact of lighting angle can be most easily noted on products or special effects.

3. Be aware of the impact of editing.

a. Standard editing techniques--these let directors create particular effects. These techniques are much more easily identified than camera lens or minimal changes in lighting.

b. Selectivity--editing can be used to create effects by what information is included and omitted and how long information is shown.

c. Sequencing--which shots are precede and follow one another can change the impact of messages.

4. Note how the visual composition creates particular effects.

a. Focul point--the first part of a picture viewers see can influence what they note and what they ignore.

b. Eye movements--structural motion or vectors and gaze motion encourage viewers to observe one part of a picture and ignore another.

c. Framing--how scenes are framed on television not only causes viewers to look in one place rather than another, but also affects their perception of what is shown on screen.

5. Watch how color influences your preferences and associations.

a. Perceptual impact--colors appear to have properties which affect our perceptions of temperature, space, time, and weight.

b. Symbolic impact--through the years, certain colors have assumed certain symbolic meaning in our society. These colors can now be used to evoke those meanings.

6. Identify visual symbols.

7. Isolate sound effects, particularly the use of music, to determine how these impact mood.

Knowing how production techniques can be used removes you from that area of invisible influence where techniques you don't recognize can move you. You may still be frightened to see the monster tower above you in a sudden jump cut as the background music rises to a feverish pitch; you may still feel sympathy for the lost child the camera looks down on; you may still feel comradery with the friendly newsman who looks you right in the eye from a medium close up distance, like a friend across the dinner table. But at least you can pause and note some of the ways production techniques are helping to arouse those feelings in you, and you can decide for yourself if you would feel the same if the message were framed in some other way.



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KIDD/Production Techniques/1989


Posted April 1998