Interview with Berle Cherney on using Still Photographs in Video

The below are notes from an interview I did with Berle Cherney who spent over 20 years creating stills sequences in film and video, working with many people including Ken Burnes.  This seems to be a dying art and his work is fantastic, so I thought it was with sharing his insight.

Compose shots bountifully and Don’t just use straight lines. ‘If you see a nicely shot film one of the things you will notice is that every frame,.. 99% of those frames will be beautifully composed. So the cameras following the action or the actions following the camera, one or the other and the camera person is trying to make every frame have key information in… So if you want to do a move from point A to point B and there’s a curve in what you want to see, … maybe you’d want to start some-one’s face and maybe come across and down them because I might have a cane in the hands and go to their feet and there’s a dog down there and stop on the dog. Some people would start at point A and make a straight line to point B without caring where they cut some-body’s neck or they’ve got a little bit of someone nose in their shot. It’s straight line and it doesn’t follow the thing, so you should be carefully following with your brain….I would let the image direct as to how the move is going to be made and more likely there would be a curve and it some-place it would not be a straight line.

See stills as a scene not a photograph. I think there’s two ways of thinking of the stills especially if they are photographs, documents can be the same thing, one-way of thinking of them is that you’re looking at a photograph. When you’re looking at its photograph it’s quite different then if you’re looking at the still as a scene in the film. it’s either a scene or an object…leave the black stripes at the edges then looking at photographs… if the camera is always inside the photograph you’re looking at a scene, it’s almost as if the cameras there taking pictures of the real scene and if you’re panning around doing it wisely and sensitively you want the audience to feel like they are there. its guiding through the picture saying look at this look at that and that’s one thing that film-making does it guides the viewer to what the creator of the film want them to look at. It should be done in a sensitive way that kind of seamless, the audience shouldn’t think about it, it should Just happen and it should make the communication clear.

Zooming in works well. As a general rule unless something really great to discover by zooming out I think zooms in are more productive because it focuses the audiences attention on what you want them to look at. With zooms out good as going away from person unless you want to see the atmosphere in the room they are in if that adds some information to the film can be very effective….if you watch really well done feature films you would be surprised how often there is a very very slow zoom going on, if you don’t notice it that’s good because you’re not supposed to be noticing it you’re supposed to be being drawn into the film and only thinking about the story that is being told. You almost have to watch the edge of the frame to notice it…I think that technique works very very well and even if someone is being interviewed doing a very very slow zoom into the face and every once in a while of course you have to backup up.

More pans than zooms. If you’re on a set and you are directing the camera movement you would have very few zooms, you would be mostly panning from one thing to another or may be a slow zoom in on something.

Keep It Moving. Just small little things to keep it moving to keep the audience attention. There’s almost always something going, like maybe waterwheel, if the camera is static there will be almost always something moving in the scene and if there is nothing moving in the scene the camera will be moving maybe only slightly. This for me is good film-making

Don’t stop/start from nothing, cut in on a move. II do not like starting with the static shot doing the move and ending with a static shot, I don’t think that well crafted stuff although it’s absolutely appropriate time for the most part I would prefer to cut it while it’s moving and or leave it while it’s moving. I think that people get into patterns of thoughtless patterns. it should be a combination of things and it should be dictate by the content and what’s proceeds the shot and what the next shot is going to be.

Fill negative space. If you have one shot with the interest on the left hand of this frame the neck shot could have the interest on the right-hand side is frame so you’re filling in the negative space, the next shot fills in the negative space of the previous shot. If you want the most flexibility the move should be fairly slow.

The energy can be in the editing not speed of moves. If somebody wants a fast piece (or a) quick section it is not so much the speed of the moves than the speed and energy of the editing. (it would be better to do in the cutting than to inject the the pace with the speed of cutting) yes, that’s what I think. Of course you can mix slow and fast moves in there but that’s not the main ingredient to make a fast-paced sequence.

Variety is the spice of life. One thing that was good about your pieces was a lot of variety in what you did. ( rotating is very interesting because something you don’t normally see in films but it does look cinematic) where actually you do see it quite a lot in films.’ Berle Cherney