Here’s The Point


Prior to the invention of the printing press in 1452 there was almost no punctuation in the English language.

There was no need for it.  The langauge was a spoken language, as were all languages, and when it was written down, it was written as a transcription of speaking.

A spoken language is filled with all kinds of clues as to what the intent of the speaker is.  When one’s voice goes up at the end of a sentence, it indicates a question. We take pauses for emphasis, or to separate ideas.

The written word prior to 1452 did not include these clues, even to the exclusion of periods.  The number of texts were few, and generally well known to the reader. The bible, for example. They were spoken words and the written part was often little more than a reminder of what the spoken words should be.

Prior to the printing press, one depended upon memory – rote memorization.  Education and memorization were considered as one in the same.  The Bible tells us that Solomon was a wise man because he had memorized 2,000 proverbs.  This was wisdom in antiquity.

Since antiquity, writing had been little more than a mnemonic.  A device for jogging the memory.

Neither written Hebrew nor Arabic have vowels.  There are vowling systems that can be appended to written Hebrew or Arabic, but generally with either of these ancient langauges, one must know the word they are reading in order to read it.

The invention of the printing press gave rise to a kind of mass production of writing, and in doing so, shifted the foundations of writing – indeed, the very definition of writing – from a transcription of spoken langauge to a grammar that was entirely graphocentric. It was a fundamental difference and it took a long time to get there.

Many years ago (many), I had an old girlfriend who had learnt English (her fifth language) not from a langauge school or courses, but by reading it. As a result, interestingly, she was often unable to differentiate between written English and spoken English.  There is a difference, as there is in all languages.  From time to time she would say strange sounding things.  She once commented that her father, upon learning he had  cancer,  was faced with ‘an ineluctable choice’.  One generally does not use the world ineluctable in spoken English, but she had learnt it by reading and could not differentiate between the two.

Now, what does this have to do with video? (you may ask).

Until now, video has been a bit like writing before the printing press.

Like pre-Gutenbergian text, it was in the hands of a very few ‘priests’ who used it sparingly, and when they did, it was largely representative of the more common written text.

When TV shows are crafted in an edit, the script is often ‘written’ apart from the video.  It is written on a piece of paper.  It is then ‘voiced’ in a recording booth, again far from the video.  A narrator or talent sits in a record booth and goes “3….2…1…. and then reads a line of text or a few lines”.

Later, those lines will be married to the pictures (which were generally shot by someone else), in an edit suite.

What appears on screen is stiled, and disconnected from any kind of passion or good story telling.

I watched 60 Minutes tonight and you can see how the ‘script’ exists largely free of the video. It’s a waste of a powerful medium.

The printing press gave rise to punctuation because as the masses embraced story-telling through text alone, it became necessary to create a grammar that could really leverage off what writing and print were capable of – as opposed to being a vehicle to mimic speech.

Now, video is just entering the place where the printing press was 500 years ago. It is passing from the priesthood into the hands of the masses. And they are creating massive amounts of content.  Daily.

At the same time, we now begin to grapple with the need for a new kind of grammar which is purely video (as opposed to written and recorded tracks married to pictures somewhere else).  It took 150 years for commas to appear.  The use of periods or full stops is generally credited to Aldus Manutius in his Life of Plato published (and printed) in 1513.

Today, we see the use of the now ubiquitous @ as a punctuation marker that tells us that we are in cyberspace, (as opposed to when to take a pause).

For video, we have, like the earliest writers, simply used the medium to ape filmmaking and writing. But video can be much more powerful. To do so, it has to acquire its own grammar – its own punctuation.

We can start by removing the affectations of writing – beginnig with what we call ‘writing for broadcast’ – the pretentious, overblown, bloviated TV talk of the 1950s.  Watching 60 MInutes again, and listening to the vastly over-written scripts it occurs to me that no one, no one talks like this.  It is speechmaking married to pictures.

Our own video grammar should reflect what the medium does best – tell stories in pictures and sound, in  an immediate and intimate way.

Then we can progress further by removing the ‘stand up’. We don’t need a movie about what a reporter does for a living.

Video can be a remarkably powerful medium – as print became, once it was freed to find its own voice. This is what we can now do for video.


10 responses to “Here’s The Point

  1. As ever Michael a fine post
    Reminds me of a small shared past
    from the day I first met you
    at Channel One TV
    towards a great digital future

  2. Was that the same Channel one that crashed and burned after 50 million was wasted and ex-employees actually left C1 off their CV in the hope of finding work with real TV channels? Happy days huh?

    In this case with VJ’s you have the punctuation all wrong. What you teach is the video equivalent of txt speech. It might convey a message but its ugly and you wouldn’t want to read a book written in it.
    Look the VJ is nothing like the printing press to writing more like the moped is to the car. Cheap and sometimes useful but not really a threat.

  3. what channel 1 are you talking about? I didn’t make any reference to Channel 1 in this essay. Oh, you mean the note from Steve Punter. Yes, he was one of the VJs at Channel 1. Most of them are still in touch with me and almost all of them found it a very positive experience. Of course, they were WAY ahead of the curve, but many went on to very successful careers. I just hear from one, Rachel Ellision , who got an MBE for her work with the BBC.

  4. eek. I wrote damn near a mini essay and all that came up was a bit of the start and paragraph from in the middle. Oh well. If I get some time…
    actually I’ll just wait for the next hopelessly unrelated Printing press similarly, can you go a month without using it? 🙂

  5. Come on Stephen – it appears you bring nothing but negativity to your postings – you remind me of the republican ticket with it’s constant smear campaign instead of trying to find some sense of commonality – we are all here to try and learn something about shooting video – even if it isn’t from your world view.

    Try to bring some constructive dialog instead of dragging the discussion into the gutter.

    “Now Go Away Or I Will Taunt You A Second Time”

  6. Thank you Michael,

    You give me inspiration to keep going. My newspapers just laid off 24 newsroom staff members this week (35% of the staff). Most of the people I trained to shoot and edit video were let go. As multimedia editor, I will be sent back to the photo dept. to shoot stills and do video when time allows. We were a inch away from launching a brand new multimedia centric website, I trained a dozen coworkers to shoot video and edit in Final Cut. Now there is no staffing to do what we were planning.

    Management is now in “retrench mode” and will be focusing their efforts on the newspaper that still makes 92 percent of the company’s profit.

    I am looking forward to getting back behind the camera ( both video and still) and plan to do good work despite the roadblocks that lie ahead.
    I truly believe, like you Michael, that video has a big future. It just might not be a my newspaper.

  7. The paradigms are shifting all the time in the fields of journalism both tv and newspaper, but I think that this current economic downtime will slow things up and fast. Unfortunately many executives revert to old models that have return dollar results in the past. My heart goes out to Colin and the like but the dollar seems to rule and harshly. Be true to the future as you see it..

  8. Colin Mulvany: ” My newspapers just laid off 24 newsroom staff members this week (35% of the staff). Most of the people I trained to shoot and edit video were let go.”

    Does anyone else see something wrong when a newspaper, after spending the time and money training people to shoot and edit video, let’s them go?

    I suggest this newspaper mentioned is not long for this his world.

    It’s not alone in the world of newspapers either!

  9. video isn’t saving newspapers the way that many thought/hoped/dreamed it would.

    I don’t think it’s because the videos are over-produced.

    the new mantra is “Fail Fast”. Newspapers are taking way too long to figure this out.

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